The latest opinion poll again shows the public are switched off politics with nearly one third expressing no preference for any leader with General Prayut leading the poll followed by Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, former Pheu Thai candidate for Prime Minister and now the leader of the newly formed Thai Sang Thai Party. It comes as Thai politics has been reduced to divining the true nature of the relationship between Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha and his long term ally and friend Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.
Next Wednesday, both Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha and his Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan will visit different provinces in Thailand to inspect flooding damage and meet MPs. Media interest in such mundane political activity has grown in recent weeks as there is growing speculation of a rift between the two men, both former army generals, on whose relationship the future of the government of Thailand now hinges. It comes as a National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) poll on Sunday shows 17.54% of the public support General Prayut as their preferred candidate for Prime Minister, well ahead of other names who emerged in the poll but far short of 32.61% of people who told pollsters that they felt no one was suitable for the post.
Second in the poll was Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan who garnered 11.5% support despite not being even an elected MP. The former cabinet minister and Pheu Thai candidate for the role in the 2019 General Election, is now the leader of the newly formed Thai Sang Thai Party.
Significantly, Khunying Sudarat has held this position behind the incumbent since well before the General Election in 2019.
Next week, both Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan are to repeat the jousting or ‘political wrestling’ seen last week when they both are scheduled to make separate trips to Palang Pracharat Party strongholds to see flooding problems in the provincial constituencies.
Quiet progress of the Palang Pracharat Party in key parts of the country but it still only comes in third
One of the things in the political firmament in Thailand that has gone unnoticed, in recent times, is the quiet progress being made by the Palang Pracharat Party despite street protests in Bangkok and calls for constitutional reform, both of which are supported by a majority of the public in the kingdom although recent violence against the Royal Thai Police has cost the movement in terms of support.
While the party has seen gains in many key constituencies, its overall national vote in this latest poll from NIDA showed it with only 9.51% of popular support well behind the Move Forward Party on 15.11% and the Pheu Thai Party on 22.5%.
General Prayut visits Chaiyaphum next week
General Prayut is to visit Chaiyaphum where he will be welcomed by two Palang Pracharat Party MPs who are not known to be under the patronage of Captain Thamanat Prompow and the government chief whip Wirat Ratanaset who is also emerging as a powerful figure as renegade parliamentarians within the Palang Pracharat Party push to assert their power against what they perceive as unelected ministers within the government.
This struggle has been ongoing since at least 2020 and led to the installation of General Prawit Wongsuwan as party leader in June last year.
PM facing a political challenge from within the ruling party which put him into power in 2019 over cabinet plans
The two MPs who will receive General Prayut on Wednesday, September 29th, are Choengchai Chalirin and Samrit Thansap.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan heads to Nakhon Ratchasima on the same day after last week’s visit to Phetchaburi which renewed speculation
The prime minister was originally intended to visit Nakhon Ratchasima but changed his mind after being informed of even more extreme flooding in Chaiyaphum.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan is due now to visit Nakhon Ratchasima instead on the same day.
Last week, General Prayut visited Ayutthaya province and was accompanied by fellow brother in arms and Minister of the Interior, General Anupong Paochinda while General Prawit made a visit to Phetchaburi where he received a large reception from MPs and cabinet ministers led by Phayao MP Captain Thamanat Prompow.
However, after being greeted by MPs, the Palang Pracharat Party leader did not attend a meeting of party members afterwards and let Captain Thamanat oversee the meeting of the party as the party’s Secretary-general.
Conflicting signals as to what is going on between General Prayut and Prawit after sackings of ministers
There are conflicting signals as to what is going on between General Prayut and General Prawit who was reported to have been taken aback by the sudden removal from office of Captain Thamanat on September 8th last, just days after a critical censure vote in parliament and what is understood to have been a serious heave against the prime minister led by the former deputy minister of agriculture.
General Prayut also removed Ms Narumon Pinyosinwat, the former deputy minister of labour and treasurer of the Palang Pracharat Party.
Both former junior ministers are thought to have been close to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit who expressed surprise at their removal which he was only acquainted of by media reports.
Deputy PM assures media talk of a rift is ‘nonsense’ and his bond with the Prime Minister is firm
However, in recent weeks he appears to have adjusted to the order and has assiduously proclaimed his unique bond and friendship with the prime minister.
Last week, after his trip to Phetchaburi, he told reporters he had decided to travel separately from the Prime Minister as General Prayut walks faster than he does.
He also told reporters the Prime Minister visits him often at his ‘operations centre’ at the Foundation for the Conservation of Forests on the base of the 1st Infantry Division in Bangkok.
‘We have been close for over 50 years. Reports about us parting ways are nonsense,’ he proclaimed.
A lightning rod to channel and deflect discontent
One view is that General Prawit is biding his time and may, at some point, either join in a heave to oust the prime minister or move in to replace him if he loses the confidence of parliament.
Another view is that he is working with the prime minister and acting as a lightning rod to channel and deflect potential heaves and moves against his brother in arms.
The latter explanation makes more sense as both men, who were active players in the 2014 coup, are still unelected by the public even though General Prawit has been elected leader of the Palang Pracharat Party of which General Prayut is not even a member while the prime minister has been elected by parliament to his role.
Whether these flood outings are charades or represent a genuine jousting for position, the provincial visits are raising speculation as to the state of the relationship between the Prime Minister General Prayut Chan ocha and his erstwhile Deputy Prime Minister and ‘brother in arms’ General Prawit Wongsuwan.
General Prawit was absent from a key Defence Council meeting last week chaired by PM Prayut Chan ocha
The speculation and counter signals continued with General Prawit’s absence noted last week from a meeting of the Defence Council chaired by Prime Minister Prayut who is also Defence Minister, a role he stripped from his longtime colleague on the formation of this government in 2019.
The deputy prime minister is an adviser to the council and would have been expected to attend the last meeting of the year in September which was attended by the leaders of the three armed forces.
After the meeting, General Prayut went to great lengths to emphasise his unique bond with General Prawit.
‘There is no rift between me and brother Pom. There is only love between us and it will stay forever that way. Nothing will come between us,’ he said during the meeting to the assembled top brass.
The meeting ended with an assurance from the spokesman for the Defence Ministry that the government was united and there was no rift between the three ‘brothers in arms’ who have all been former commanders-in-chief.
Captain Thamanat declines armed forces award
On Saturday, Captain Thamanat, a highly controversial former army officer, reportedly jailed in Australia on drug trafficking offences in the 1990s, announced that he was declining an award offered to him by the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (AFAPS) for his exceptional contribution to society.
Thamanat gets the all-clear from the Constitutional Court in relation to Australian drug allegations
His involvement in an alleged parliamentary plot in early September on the eve of a censure motion against the prime minister and his government involved players from both within the ruling Palang Pracharat Party, the opposition Pheu Thai Party and up to 20 MPs from other independent parties.
Skilled political operator, elected Secretary-general of Palang Pracharat Party in June, coveted the more senior ministerial role of Minister of the Interior
Such is the influence and political skill of Captain Thamanat that he became the effective conduit between MPs within the ruling party and the prime minister and staff at the PM’s office at Government House giving him enormous power up to the beginning of this month.
It is well-known that following his election as Palang Pracharat Party Secretary-general in Khon Kaen in June this year that he had his eyes set on the role of Minister of the Interior, the powerful seat at the cabinet table currently held by General Anupong Paochinda.
The ongoing tension and speculation will not quieten and must ultimately lead to a break, one way or the other.
Government plays for time and an end to the virus emergency sometime in the middle of next year
It is clear that the future of the current government hinges on the relationship between General Prawit and General Prayut as well as their ability to control MPs in parliament.
The government, right now, has until May next year before the opposition parties can convene and launch another motion of no confidence in the administration.
General Prayut is hoping that, by then, the pandemic crisis will have receded and that some sort of economic recovery will have begun.
His goal is to lead the Palang Pracharat Party into the next General Election but most political observers now fear that Thai politics has become so frayed with street disturbances and complex divisions within parliament and government as well as a convoluted constitution that poses far too many questions over the future course of events.
Democracy in Thailand is controlled by two ex-army generals who have never been elected as public representatives to parliament by the public
It has all led to a surreal position where democracy in Thailand is effectively controlled by two former army generals who have never been elected, on a personal basis, as political representatives or as members of parliament.
The current prime minister who was appointed to the role in August 2014, following the May 2014 coup which he led, has now held the position for over 7 years.
It is quite a contrast to General Sonthi Boonyaratglin who handed over power quickly to Surayud Chulanont following the 2006 coup when the army ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Prayut could theoretically remain in power until July 2027 under one reading of the 2017 Constitution
Under the 2017 constitution, a prime minister may only hold office for two terms of four years each or eight years but Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, a legal expert, has pointed out that this would only start in April 2018 when the new constitution came into effect or alternatively, as a former spokesman for the committee which drafted the 2017 charter, Mr Udom Rath-amrit claims, it would only commence from the 10th July 2019 when General Prayuth assumed office for the first time under the terms of the 2017 law giving him until July 2027 to remain in office if elected again by subsequent parliaments.
Add to this a deteriorating economic situation and the future of the kingdom becomes more difficult to divine in the murky world of Thailand’s political landscape which is always fluid and weak with real power being held by the military and the apparatus of the state.