No matter what happens, it is clear that if Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha is in office after August 2022, there will be a Constitutional Court challenge to his continued tenure as PM. It is also difficult to see how the internal pressure with the conflicting elements of the Palang Pracharat Party, already in motion, are going to play out even as this increasingly unpopular government totters on in the hope of a rebound from the COVID-19 crisis.

With the prospect of an election in Thailand next year growing, there are signs of discord and machinations within the ruling Palang Pracharat Party even after its nomination of Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha last week for the role. On Sunday, it emerged that the governor of Pathum Thani province, the hero of the Chiang Rai Tham Luang cave rescue of 2018, turned down an approach from Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan to be a second candidate for the party while there is speculation that a ‘wow’ candidate from the Pheu Thai Party may be unveiled at a strategic point closer to any national poll. Some sources suggest it may be Srettha Thavisin, a well known and respected property tycoon, while others still suggest General Prayut has the whip hand because of the support his candidature will enjoy from the 250 seat upper house, the Senate, in any parliamentary vote after the next election.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha still has the aces even as he faces fissures and opposition from within the political party that supports him, a potential constitutional impediment to his being in office beyond 2022 and a government that is unpopular with the people. This week, it emerged that the Pheu Thai Party has a potential ‘wow’ candidate for prime minister which it is holding back for strategic purposes. It is rumoured that it may be property tycoon Srettha Thavisin (left) although the real estate magnate has denied interest in a political career previously. This week saw an approach by the Palang Pracharat Party led by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan to the Governor of Pathum Thani, Narongsak Osottanakorn (right), spurned by the former Governor of Chiang Rai who became a national hero figure after leading the Tham Luang cave rescue in 2018 on the basis that he is a civil servant and would prefer to remain in that role rather than a backup political role.

Pathum Thani’s Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn, who as the former governor of Chiang Rai helped lead and orchestrate the famous Tham Luang cave rescue of a stranded young football team in July 2018 to worldwide acclaim, has made it clear that he has no interest in running as a prime ministerial candidate for the Palang Pracharat Party in the next election which may take place as early as next year.

Tham Luang cave was the place where the miracle happened. Now it is going to become a tourist attraction

While the party has already nominated incumbent Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, it is covering its options and it is understood that two more names may be put forward as a byzantine political game of musical chairs and charades has been set in motion by an attempt by former junior minister Thamanat Prompow to lead a heave against the Prime Minister in early September and his abrupt sacking from the cabinet, days later, together with former Deputy Minister of Labour, Narumon Pinyosinwat. 

Public apathy towards politics as government hinges on the bond between two ex-army generals

The current tensions, simmering while being consistently and volubly denied by both sides to the divide, come as there are reports that Prime Minister Prayut may also be considering accepting the nomination of a new local party or even joining the new movement, based in the South, as a member.

Pathum Thani governor met this week with General Prawit at his forest headquarters to discuss floods

It is understood that Mr Narongsak met with Palang Pracharat Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, this week, at the Five Provinces Bordering Forest Preservation Foundation known as the Deputy PM’s unofficial headquarters, where the two discussed the threat of flooding in Pathum Thani.

However, on Sunday, speaking with the Bangkok Post newspaper, the governor dismissed the suggestion of his becoming a candidate for prime minister, stating clearly that he was a civil servant who has no political ambitions. ‘I am a civil servant. I am only committed to working to the best of my ability,’ he explained. ‘I will not accept the role of backup prime minister.’

Political temperature is heating up as the election draws near with fissures opening in Palang Pracharat

It comes as the political temperature is heating up ahead of 2022 which many see as a decisive year for the government with reports that the Pheu Thai Party is ready to unveil a powerful and surprising new candidate for the role amid overwhelming voter apathy and lack of confidence due to the prolonged nature of the COVID-19 crisis and a perception that the situation has been mishandled by the current government.

Amid fissures within the ruling Palang Pracharat Party despite the political group last week nominating General Prayut Chan ocha again as its candidate for the office of Prime Minister, there is speculation that the main opposition group and Thailand’s most popular political force, the Pheu Thai Party, may announce an external candidate to be its candidate in the next General Election, at the last moment, which is increasingly looking like it may take place in 2022.

Thailand’s leading political party may not reveal its hand until sometime just before the General Election

This week, Cholnan Srikaew, a deputy leader of the Pheu Thai Party and MP for Nan province, suggested that the party, which registered 22.5% in the latest poll, well ahead of the ruling party on 9.51% with the progressive Move Forward Party second with 15.11%, will remain tight-lipped about its candidate for the top job for now as a matter of strategy.

Political observers in Thailand point to the choice of Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of the former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who only emerged as the party’s choice to lead it into the polls some 50 days before the general election in 2011 which it won in a landslide as justification for such an approach.

Sunday poll shows over 40% want the PM’s term to end in August 2022 under one interpretation of the 2017 constitution which may well be tested

A poll, on Sunday, suggests that Thai people are looking for a change with the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) survey taken from a sample throughout the country, earlier this month, showing 40.7% want Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha to end his tenure in office next August after eight years in power under one strict interpretation of the 2017 constitution.

A significant 38.37% said that the matter, alternatively, should be decided by a Constitutional Court ruling.

Under Section 158 of the constitution, the prime minister may only serve two terms or a maximum of eight years in the position.

The government’s legal expert and deputy prime minister, Dr Wissanu Krea-ngam, has argued that the PM’s term only commenced when the constitution was promulgated in 2017.

Debate rages over Section 158 provision

There is considerable debate over the issue with even differing views from among those close to the constitutional drafting committee which devised the current charter to prevent political corruption.

A former spokesman for the committee, Mr Udom Rath-amrit, claims the prime minister’s legal term only commenced from the 10th July 2019 when he took up his position under the current charter following the March 2019 General Election.

This would mean that General Prayut could extend his term until July 2027 if re-elected by parliament.

However, Mr Jade Donavanik, who was a key adviser to the charter committee, has indicated that it was intended to limit anyone holding the office for more than eight years.

He said the charter’s spirit was to limit extended periods in office for any individual as it can lead to the usurpation of constitutional limits.

Hence, under this interpretation, the current PM may not extend his term beyond August 2022 having taken up office as head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the former military junta, in August 2014.

Mr Jade also intimated that there is an article within the constitution that bolsters this argument although this was questioned by a former Palang Pracharat Party spokeswoman, Thippanan Sirichana, who said that no such stipulation exists and that the opposition parties were deliberately causing mischief to undermine the prime minister.

Pheu Thai Party whip considering bringing a case to the Constitutional Court but it may have to wait until next year when a case for a violation can be made

It is reported that Sutin Klungsang, the Pheu Thai Party MP for Maha Sarakham and chief whip for the opposition in parliament, is considering taking a case to the Constitutional Court but such proceedings may not have standing as an issue or infringement of the constitution against another person’s rights must be shown before a case can be heard. 

This may only arise after August 2022 when, if he is still in power, the position of the prime minister may be challenged in court.

However, there is a lot that can happen between now and August next year with the public in the mood for an election and a clear split or at least escalating tensions within the ruling Palang Pracharat Party.

2017 Constitution is a legal minefield for politicians because of its complex and ambiguous provisions

In Sunday’s poll, 40.35% of people wanted to see an election as soon as possible while just over 30% wanted the House of Representatives to wait until after the electoral law process, changing the ballot system for the next General Election, has been completed to avoid further legal complications or disputes being taken to the Constitutional Court in the aftermath of any result.

Even so, many see the 2017 constitution as a minefield of possible challenges as we saw after the 2019 General Election because of its complex and ambiguous provisions as part of its overarching goal of preventing corruption and political parties being influenced by external actors.

Prime Minister is not a member of the ruling party yet the law seeks to exclude external interference in the day to day workings of registered political parties

Ironically, this is one of the reasons why current Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, originally appointed by the military junta for his first term, is not a member of the ruling party and may yet pose a problem for him even after the Palang Pracharat Party nominated him this week as its primary candidate for the position of Prime Minister.

The absence or lack of influence at the top of the party because of external non-elected ministers is what is believed to be behind the tensions that have arisen within the Palang Pracharat Party even though its leader, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit is also unelected by the public.

In addition to the Pathum Thani governor, who has rejected the role, other potential external candidates are being considered.

These include General Wit Thephasadin Na Ayutthaya, a former assistant army chief who is thought to be close to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan as well as Piraphan Salirathavibhaga, a key advisor to the current PM and former Minister of Justice in the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Mr Piraphan is also an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit and was introduced to the government by former army chief General Apirat Kongsompong.

Tensions between two ‘brothers in arms’ behind the 2014 coup since the sacking of two junior ministers in September is plain to see although a rift is denied

Tensions between the Prime Minister General Prayut and brother in arms Deputy Prime Minister Prawit emerged plainly when two former junior ministers were sacked in September, days after the government won a censure vote in parliament.

Captain Thamanat Prompow and former deputy Minister of Labour Narumon Pinyosinwat remain ensconced in their roles as Secretary-general and Treasurer of the party respectively while the Palang Pracharat Party leader General Prawit insists that his relationship with his brother in arms, General Prayut, is as strong as ever.

New southern party emerges as an alternative to the Palang Pracharat Party as a potential vehicle for the Prime Minister’s political ambitions if required

However, at the same time, it has been reported that a new party targeting southern MPs launched by the former permanent secretary at the Ministry of the Interior, Chalerm Promlert, may also become an option for the Prime Minister if he needs another route to power.

Reports have linked the new party with Colonel Suchart Chantarachotikul, formerly the chief strategist for the Palang Pracharat Party in the South who recently resigned from the party.

The former Palang Pracharat Party activist has suggested that Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha may be joining the new party.

It is understood that Minister of the Interior Anupong Paochinda, the third of the three brothers in arms behind the 2014 coup, is a close confidant of Mr Chalerm.

These developments have led to some consternation within the Palang Pracharat Party prompting urgent calls from General Prawit to his southern MPs who have assured him of their loyalty.

Thailand’s politics a byzantine balance of struggles and allegiances make it a political deck of cards

What this political dancing does reveal is a byzantine web of struggles, relationships and balances of power within a party that already depends on two other significant coalition partners, the Bhumjaithai Party and the Democrat Party, to stay in power while only being ranked third in national opinion polls.

It is a political deck of cards.

In the meantime, the other political parties have nominated their champions for the next General Election.

These include two new parties, the Kla party led by former Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij and the Thai Srang Thai Party led by former Pheu Thai Party nominee and consistently number two in polls for Prime Minister among the public, Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan.

Party leader and popular candidate for PM calls for political unity, presents a plan to defeat the virus

Both the Bhumjaithai Party and the Democrat Party have nominated their respective leaders, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Commerce Jurin Laksanawisit, as their candidates for the top job.

For the Move Forward Party, their leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, will be put forward for the position.

Pheu Thai have a candidate in mind with initial speculation that it is property tycoon Srettha Thavisin

Chonlanan Srikaew of the Pheu Thai Party does not deny that the party has someone in mind when asked by reporters this week.

‘Wait for a surprise. It definitely will be a ‘wow’ when the name pops up, he said this week.

Speculation is mounting on the possibility of real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin, the chief executive of Sansiri PLC, one of Thailand’s most successful and dynamic property development firms, becoming what would be the main challenger for the job of prime minister.

Mr Srettha is already on record as denying any political ambitions from early this year.

In 2012, his name came into the political spotlight following a controversial two-hour meeting with then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the luxury Four Seasons Hotel in Bangkok which led to wild speculation and calls for an investigation into the property developer’s firm by then Democrat Party activists which were, in turn, vigorously rejected by the Pheu Thai Party at the time which criticised the treatment of Thailand’s first female prime minister in media and political circles.

It is known that Mr Srettha, whose firm has been linked to the promotion of equal rights for the LGBT community and other campaigns against inequality, would have the support of former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister.

Businessman has been a champion of LGBT rights and has raised concerns about the rising level of inequality

The business success enjoyed by Mr Srettha since founding his firm in 1995 would also make him an attractive candidate to the voting electorate both in urban and rural areas if he was endorsed by the party’s leadership and the Shinawatra family.

In August, Mr Srettha appeared on the influential ClubHouse app and spoke of the need for change in Thailand although he argued in favour of gradual, progressive change while warning of the danger of a violent revolution if matters were either ignored or addressed too quickly.

He expressed his concern that the COVID-19 emergency had wiped out many years of progress in tackling poverty in the kingdom and that inequality had risen sharply in its wake.

His prescription for any new government would include large flagship investment projects, a rejuvenation and restructuring of the tax system, price support mechanisms for farming, schemes to attract inward investment into Thailand and a programme of constitutional change. 

General Prayut enjoys the advantages of being the incumbent and having the support of the Senate

One key factor that must be borne in mind with the political equation is that the candidacy of Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha or those in the establishment who have supported him thus far, will automatically have up to 250 votes, from the Thai Senate appointed by the former junta, in the poll for PM within the National Assembly after the next election.

The Prime Minister is also in place and occupying the role giving him another distinct advantage.

General Prayut has led consistently all opinion polls since the junta came to power as a popular choice.

His candidacy would, theoretically, only need 125 votes in the House of Representatives to secure the position although most commentators accept that any government formed based on failing to control over 250 seats of the 500 seats in the lower house would lack both moral and effective political authority to govern and be short-lived.

However, the situation still does give the incumbent the whip hand when it comes to forming a new coalition government to take power for another four-year term.

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Further reading:

Public apathy towards politics as government hinges on the bond between two ex-army generals

PM moves against cabal within Palang Pracharat behind failed heave against him – Thamanat out

Crisis averted in parliament as MPs coup plot against the Prime Minister melts in goodwill show

Tensions within government as COVID-19 crisis grows darker with public confidence in free fall

Prime Minister calls for unity as he promises the kingdom is set to make a sustainable recovery from the crisis

Economic fears rising as Thailand faces a bigger crisis than 1997 with rising job losses and debt

Thamanat’s new job is to make Palang Pracharat the kingdom’s largest voting bloc in parliament

Only 1.8% of the people in one poll this week said that they had any confidence in the government

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PM Prayut hands power back to the CCSA to find 100 million vaccine doses to defeat Covid-19

Thailand scrambles to procure more vaccines as infections and deaths from Covid-19 jump sharply

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PM left master of the field as constitutional reform moves stall with street protests quieted

Constitutional Court rules in PM’s favour, says that there is no basis for his removal from office over home

Future Forward Party dissolved – leadership banned from politics by Constitutional Court order

Parliament to debate PM’s oath-taking question which is also referred to the Constitutional Court

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