MP and New Democratic Party leader, Suritan Pichan, predicts that General Prayut will dissolve the House of Representatives before it reconvenes on May 22nd next sparking a General Election in June or July this year. It comes as the PM’s arch-foe, Captain Thamanat Prompow, on Friday, took up a key position within the leadership of the lately revived New Economics Party which on paper remains a supporter of the coalition.
Thailand could find itself plunged into a General Election in the next two months with a poll likely in June or July as speculation mounts that Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha will act before parliament is due to resume on May 22nd when the main goal of opposition parties will be to pass a series of organic laws which will significantly alter the political balance of power coming at a time when the government and the prime minister face voter fatigue and unpopularity due to a continuous economic malaise since coming to power in 2019.
The chances of a General Election being called in Thailand before parliament reopens on May 22nd next are rising given a confluence of circumstances and factors which have emerged.
Chief among them is a series of organic laws moving their way through the parliamentary process in the country which would revolutionise the voting system and apportionment of seats for the next House of Representatives.
Passage of new organic or electoral laws will see a return to a two ballot election voting system favouring the Pheu Thai Party with fewer list MPs
The passage of this law which would see the country revert to a two ballot system for different kinds of seats in the House with 400 constituency seats and 100 party lists seats replacing the 350 seats and 150 party-list seats in 2019.
This would almost certainly see the country’s largest political and main opposition party, Pheu Thai, emerge victorious from any poll.
The resurgence of support for the former ruling party which won the 2011 election in a landslide with 265 seats out of 500, on January 30th last in the Bangkok’s Laksi Chatuchak Constituency 9 will have put the government parties on notice about the public’s mood.
Many analysts and political observers agree that this factor alone will mean that Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha, who has this week warned reporters that he will not respond to questions on the dissolution of the house, something he had hitherto unequivocally ruled out until his term expires in March 2023, will seek a dissolution of parliament before May 22nd next.
Dissolution of House means election must be held within 45 days or sometime in June or July this year
Such a move would mean that under the 2017 constitution, a General Election must be held within 45 days from the date the King officially dissolves the house under Section 102 of the 2017 Constitution which would provide for an election in July or early June if the Prime Minister moves faster than anticipated.
The decision to dissolve the house is a key prerogative held by the PM in a situation or political battle where his control over events in the political sphere is beginning to recede and parties are already mobilising for a campaign.
The expulsion of 21 MPs from the ruling Palang Pracharat Party in January this year, led by ousted former Secretary-general, Thamanat Prompow, has begun an inexorable decline in the fortunes of the ruling party and its prospects for staying in power.
This week, Captain Thamanat was selected as Secretary-general of a revived New Economics Party after eighteen of the Palang Pracharat Party MPs joined the smaller party together with others. Three joined the Bhumjaithai Party.
16 Party coalition government is severely weakened and may well not withstand a motion of confidence
The current coalition of sixteen parties is severely weakened with a reported ability to put forward 248 MPs in a critical House of Representatives vote with 208 being controlled by the opposition, being questioned.
Very much all of this depends on Captain Thamanat Prompow whose ability to command members of the House of Representatives is undoubted, the vote of the New Economics Party and growing reports of MPs ready to bring the curtain down on General Prayut’s government.
The New Economics Party, also known in Thailand as the Setthakij Party, had 6 MPs after the 2019 election and initially aligned itself with the opposition bloc but later moved to support the coalition with the resignation of its former leader.
It has been a recognised political party since 2020 having formed in 2018 with 8,700 members nationwide.
It now commands approximately 20 MPs including the 18 Palang Pracharat Party members expelled in January and several defections from the Pheu Thai Party and Democrat Parties.
New Economics Party a threat to Prayut
On Friday, the party convened at its new headquarters in the Suan Luang area of Bangkok where General Wit Thephasadin Na Ayudhaya emerged as party leader and Captain Thamanat Prompow as Secretary-general of the newly invigorated party claiming as its aim the restoration of prosperity to Thailand.
Observers note that while the party, theoretically, remains part of the coalition government and both its new leader and secretary-general are reportedly close to Prawit Wongsuwan the Palang Pracharat Party leader, they still think it highly unlikely that the bulk of its MPs particularly Captain Thamanat, will support the prime minister in a no-confidence vote in parliament.
Captain Thamanat has reportedly pledged himself to vote against General Prayut in any such vote going forward.
Bhumjaithai Party is restless and may be nearing the right moment to hit back at PM over his ruling style
The other key development which has weakened General Prayut in recent weeks was the failure of seven cabinet ministers including Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul from the Bhumjaithai Party to attend a cabinet meeting last month in protest over moves by the Ministry of the Interior to extend the contract of the BTS Skytrain operator in Bangkok.
The growing restlessness and confidence of the Bhumjaithai Party will not have been lost on the prime minister as that party and its leader, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul, senses that its fortunes are rising.
It is also known that within his party there is deep discontent at the ruling style of Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha in particular at decisions made during the pandemic crisis.
During the Budget Debate, last year, two Bhumjaithai Party MPs, Ms Chada Thaised and Korrawee Prissananantakul from Uthai Thani called on the party leader, Mr Anutin, to walk away from the government.
They were not alone.
Party leader Anutin ready for a General Election in June 2021 when Prayut emphasised June 2022
In June last year, Deputy Prime Minister Anutin was quick to underline that his party was ready to fight a General Election at any time.
‘As party leader, I ask my MPs every day if they’ve visited their supporters in our political strongholds,’ he said.
Significantly, this came at a time when the Prime Minister himself appeared to indicate a June 2022 dissolution of the House of Representatives when he tasked all cabinet ministers to plan to have their work completed by then.
He was speaking at a briefing with cabinet ministers.
Unpopularity of government linked to the economy
The unpopularity of the government is seen to be linked to voter fatigue after 8 years of General Prayut and an economy that finds itself in the doldrums with a poor 1.6% growth rate in 2021 after a steep 6.2% contraction in 2020 due to severe restrictions imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indeed, economic growth in 2019/2020 was also very disappointing at 2.4% meaning the democratically elected government of 2019 has singularly failed on the economic front, leaving the Thai economy, the second-largest, among the worst performers in Southeast Asia.
‘A lot of Thais want to see General Prayut out of office,’ declared Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University in recent days. ‘The economy is not doing well. The population still remembers the early pandemic incompetence when there were no vaccines in the country.’
Only 1.8% of Thai people supported the government last year at the depths of the COVID-19 crisis and the vaccine debacle according to a national poll
At one point, late last summer during the height of the COVID-19 threat and a shattered economy, a credible nationwide poll by Thai language newspaper Thai Rath showed only 1.8% support for the government amid an embarrassing shortage of COVID-19 vaccines.
For some reason, this debacle does not appear to have impacted the political fortunes of the populist and nationalist Bhumjaithai Party which have been bolstered by support from defecting MPs in the House of Representatives growing from 59 just after the General Election in 2019 to a current tally of 62.
Bhumjaithai Party has yet to be tested at the polls
At the same time, it should be pointed out that the Thai public is difficult to predict in elections and that the Bhumjaithai Party has yet to be tested at the polls.
Cannabis remains illegal as ministers push through a law controlling its use by the public after decriminalisation
Bhumjaithai may have much to lose if the current organic laws successfully make their way through parliament.
Nonetheless, Minster Anutin may want to see landmark legislation that will make home the cultivation of cannabis legal on a wider scale as the drug remains still to be decriminalised despite well-publicised regulatory moves having been completed towards that end recently.
Chaos as senior officials deny easing and postponement the chemical ban announced by the Industry Minister
The party is hoping that its populist policies, its stand and commitment to deliver on legal access to cannabis or marijuana as well as other issues such as the banning of dangerous chemicals used in food production, will stand to it.
Hawkish public health policy of Deputy PM Anutin chimed with public opinion over COVID-19
However, ultimately, the party may well be judged on the hawkish stance of Deputy Prime Minister Anutin during the COVID-19 crisis when his attitudes appeared to chime well with public opinion which consistently registered strong concerns over the virus threat and a determination to put public health ahead of economic considerations.
The current political situation looks more and more like a vacuum as the Prime Minister has, for the first time this week, accepted that his government may not stay its course to a full term in March 2023.
Signals from both Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan suggest a shift this week towards accepting the government is winding down
On Monday, during a meeting at the Five Provinces Bordering Forest Preservation Foundation in Bangkok, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told invited smaller parties and their leaders that a dissolution of the house towards the end of the year after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in November would be a distinct possibility with a resulting election in the new year.
On Tuesday, March 8th, the Prime Minister met with the senior leaders of larger coalition parties and other key officials within his coalition at the Rajpruek Club in Bangkok, Thailand’s most prestigious members club, for talks where the dissolution of the House of Representatives was off the agenda and instead, it was reported that General Prayut was anxious to discuss the economic and political implications of the Ukraine War.
A similar meeting at the same venue on Thursday, March 17th, also saw the Prime Minister demur about talking of dissolution although he earlier said that he had discussed with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan his meeting with smaller parties on Monday where his prerogative on the matter was emphasised.
Reporters had noticed a change in recent days as the Prime Minister no longer insisted the government would serve out its full term, his stock response up until then.
PM insists he will decide alone
Afterwards, he laid down a marker for reporters on the topic by sending out faithful government spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana with this message: ‘The PM has asked me to tell you that he has no answer and he will listen to no one on this matter because dissolving the House is the prime minister’s call.’
The Bhumjaithai Party is still reported to be confident of the party’s electoral chances if an election was to be held this year with reports of preparations already underway.
It has already sent a signal to the Prime Minister in February that it is becoming restless.
Smaller parties may scent blood
It may well also occur to smaller parties now left with a choice between bringing down the government before the new organic laws are passed or supporting the government, that this may boost electoral prospects in an election that will be fought within the year in any event and which under the newly revised laws, as in 2011, would see them all but wiped out, that it may be preferable to opt to fight the election now under a more benign system for smaller political forces.
This scent of blood may well precipitate the crisis driven by self-interest. It may also explain the attention paid towards small parties this week.
Bhumjaithai Party may yet conclude that its best interests lie in a quicker dissolution and a break with the current and deeply unpopular government
It could also be that a similar thought has occurred within the Bhumjaithai Party which saw 12 of its seats in the 2019 election come from the party list system including that of its leader Anutin Charnvirakul. Similarly, a total of 21 of the 51 seats for the Democrat Party came from the party-list system.
The current situation on the new organic laws is that they have been passed by a first reading stage in their progress through parliament but must wait until sometime in June, for a second and third reading, to be passed.
Government is in its death throes as divisions multiply with July likely to be a decisive month for the country
The Bhumjaithai Party may wish also to disassociate itself from the government to attract votes on either side of the political spectrum as the party successfully managed to do in 2019.
Pheu Thai Party reported as being ready to defer the no-confidence motion in order to prioritise the passage of the new, game-changing electoral laws
There is even speculation that the Pheu Thai Party and other opposition groups may hold off on a government no-confidence motion when parliament reopens on May 22nd to prioritise this work of the assembly.
A key factor also is that once a motion is taken up by the house, the Prime Minister is precluded from dissolving it until there is a vote.
If the government is defeated then the organic law bills would die and any election would have to take place based on an executive order issued by the caretaker government.
This could pave the way not only for a nationwide election conducted under the one ballot system but potential legal challenges to the outcome of the poll based on the constitutionality of the election, which could plausibly expose a defect or loophole in the constitution itself.
Party leader says PM will not reconvene the House of Representatives on May 22nd next causing an election
One MP, Suratin Pichan, the leader of the New Democracy Party, reported to be close to Captain Thamanat Prompow, has even suggested that the Thai parliament is now in its closing days with a growing possibility that it may not reconvene as scheduled on May 22nd next.
‘If the House reconvenes on May 22nd and a no-confidence motion is filed, the prime minister is not allowed to dissolve the House,’ he explained meaning that if there is a strong likelihood of the prime minister losing such a vote, he will avoid this outcome and keep control over the situation in his own hands.
This distinct and growing possibility was referenced also by Pheu Thai Party MP from Ubon Ratchathani, Somkid Chuakong in recent days when he warned: ‘We’ve heard that Gen Prayut might dissolve the House before it reconvenes on May 22nd to avoid the censure debate. He has no reason to justify that kind of decision. The House faces no problems, and dissolving it would mean he’s dodging questions.’
Why would an unpopular PM gift the opposition?
Even if reports are true that the opposition has seen this possibility and at the same time concluded that Captain Thamanat and the New Economics Party as well as other smaller groups may vote against General Prayut bringing down the government, and are consequently seeking to delay the no-confidence motion to allow for the passage of the new electoral voting laws, boosting its electoral prospects, why would the Prime Minister, given his waning popularity and that of the Palang Pracharat Party, allow that to happen?
Hence there is a growing and distinct possibility of a house dissolution in May with a General Election to be held within 45 days meaning sometime possibly in June or more likely July.