General Prawit Wongsuwan is tipped to lead the Palang Pracharat Party next month. The mass resignation of 18 executive members on Monday paves the way for the election of a new party leadership. This should mean a new effort to push policies aimed at voters and winning the next election. General Prawit is currently the party’s chief strategist.
The heave against the leadership of the Palang Pracharat Party, the leading political group in the Thai government, first reported in April, took a step forward this week when over half the executive of the party resigned en masse. This will lead to a general assembly and new election for the leadership before July 16th. Already tipped to secure the position after securing the backing of senior cabinet ministers and factions is none-other than the Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan who prior to last year’s cabinet reshuffle was being written off on health grounds. While Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha who is reported to be standing aloof from this week’s developments, will continue to lead the ministry, the move may mean a more grass-roots style of governing ahead.
This week, a general assembly of the ruling Palang Pracharat Party was triggered after the resignation of 18 members of the executive took place last Monday. The resignation of over half the executive of the party under Section 15 (3) of its constitution means a new election must take place in 45 days or by July 16th.
The move follows days of political pow wows including one on Friday last when it is understood that key members of the influential Sam Mitr (Three friends) wing of the party had a private meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.
On Sunday, it is understood that the Sam Mitr groups itself consulted with other factions within the party.
General Prawit denied involvement in the move
After the resignations this week, the influential Deputy PM denied any involvement in the heave and also told reporters that he was not aware that the resignations reported to him had taken place.
He also refused to comment on whether he may take up the leadership of the party which has been speculated on now since April.
‘I don’t know,’ General Prawit told reporters. ‘I’m not involved with them.’
Likely that deputy PM will emerge as the governing party’s new leader in July after an election
However, it is now believed that there is every likelihood of the deputy prime minister, currently responsible for security matters and without a portfolio in cabinet, materialising as the leader of the ruling party after July 16th.
On Wednesday, General Prawit received an endorsement from the Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin who is one of the key leaders of the powerful Sam Mitr faction which is understood to control approximately 40 government MPs and is a key lynchpin of this administration.
Praise for the former army leader and Minister of Defence from a key leader in the Sam Mitr faction
Mr Somsak indicated that such a change should also lead to a cabinet reshuffle.
He praised the former army general who was a key player in the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the former military junta and is considered a close confidant and ally of Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha.
General Prawit is also a former Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army from 2004 and 2005 and is a former Minister of Defence.
Has emerged as a savvy political operator
Since the election in March last year, General Prawit has emerged as a key player in the political sphere after he joined the Palang Pracharat Party and proceeded to take on the role of its chief strategist.
The general is highly respected among the armed forces and officials where he is known as ‘Big Brother’.
Cleared of watch scandal
The colourful deputy PM last year became embroiled in a scandal over his use of an expensive range of watches loaned by a businessman friend.
He was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing after an investigation by the National Anti Corruption Commission.
His election as Palang Pracharat Party leader would mark a turnaround from last year when before the government was formed, it was rumoured he would not be included because of failing health.
Prime Minister stands apart but his government will run its full term says top cabinet member
This week, amid the growing speculation and sense of change following Monday’s resignations, the Thai prime minister has stood apart from these political manoeuvres
On Wednesday, the Justice Minster Somsak Thepsuthin dismissed speculation that the defeated faction within the party may set up another political grouping observing that it would be three years to the next election and that he was confident that the government led by General Prayut Chan ocha would complete a four-year term.
Support from political groups across Thailand for this new role as governing party leader
It is understood that General Prawit has the support of key groups of Palang Pracharat MPs in Bangkok, Chonburi, Korat and northern MPs associated with Deputy Agriculture Minister Captain Thamanat Prompow.
Many of those supporting the candidature of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit for the leadership of the ruling Palang Pracharat Party are eyeing ministerial positions and for those already in government, a move to a more influential post.
Current Deputy Finance Minister, Santi Prompat, a key player in this move, is hoping to take on the top job at that ministry.
On a wider level, party activists believe that the government should be more politically connected and that the Palang Pracharat Party must distinguish itself and its policies to the electorate.
This is seen as a step forward in moulding the party into a more vibrant political force rather than just being a vehicle for operatives of the former military junta.
The party will, of course, retain its close alignment and support for the military and its traditional, powerful role in Thai society.
Speculation about the role of Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak in any cabinet shakeup
This move has implications for Thailand’s economic policies and decision making going forward especially as some reports suggest that Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak is a target for key players behind this heave.
However, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid, known for coordination of the government’s economic policies, along with Industry Minister Suriya Juangroongruangkit and Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin is a key leader of the Sam Mitr group which will still hold a powerful position before the next cabinet reshuffle.
He also works closely with the current prime minister.
Party deputy leader stresses that this move has nothing to do with the government for now
Following the mass resignations on Monday, the party’s deputy leader, Paiboon Nititawan who also resigned, stressed that the current move has nothing to do with the government or the cabinet.
The current party leader and Minister of Finance Uttama Savanayana was tight-lipped about Monday’s development which effectively sees him and the party secretary-general Sontirat Sontijirawong removed from the leadership of the political group pending an election.
Mr Uttama said it was not appropriate to discuss ‘individuals’ and urged the media to focus on pressing national matters instead.
Opposition party dismissed reports of an alliance with the Palang Pracharat Party as rumours
Swirling speculation surrounding the heave also drew in Sompong Amornvivat, the main opposition Pheu Thai Party leader who dismissed rumours of an alliance or understanding between the main opposition party and the government.
He put this down to the rumour mill generated by the intense political activity within the ruling party and attempts by various factions to sway individuals or groups to their side.
He said that Pheu Thai was committed to the national interest and made its decisions in a transparent manner according to inviolable democratic principles.
Election of General Prawit as party leader could spark changes in the nature of this government
The election of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan as leader of the main party in the governing coalition may bring about a change in the nature of the government.
The soldier turned politician has now been in government at the highest level since 2014 and has shown himself to be a wily and canny operator.
A more coherent governing party pursuing its own policy objectives should see a demand for changes in economic policies and initiatives.
Management of the economy a key political issue for winning votes and elections according to polls
Consistently, opinion polls and surveys have shown that the economy is the single most important issue to Thai voters even during the coronavirus emergency.
The current government of Prayut Chan ocha has functioned since last year in the economic sphere, very much along the lines of the previous military government albeit with parliamentary oversight on spending, led and guided by Deputy PM Somkid Jatusripitak working with the Finance Minister Uttama Saowanayon and Bank of Thailand Governor Veerathai Santiprabhob.
The Bank of Thailand governor is to step down this year but has steadfastly preserved the independent role of the institution as defined by law.
Where political factionalism has arisen in the government since its election, for instance in the matter of the controversial pesticide ban last year, this has given away to instability with unpredictable results.
More grassroots policies and governance
We can be sure that the change of leadership within the senior party in the coalition government will lead to efforts to promote far more grassroots policies in an effort to galvanise more support.
The government will still be led by General Prayut but the unwieldy coalition may be about to become more fractious.
Given the deteriorating economic picture and the continuing coronavirus emergency, there could be some interesting and even more volatile times ahead. However, such is the nature of democracy.