Bizarre media coverage of Thailand’s political scene this week makes it look as if the chances of a possible alliance between the Bhumjaithai Party and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha is a path back to power for the PM.

Thailand appears to be heading for a General Election in May this year with the government likely now to serve its full terms as Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha appears determined to pursue his role in government as he tries to fashion some form of political alliance or network to return to power. The PM continues to stand aloof from party politics and is playing his last ace, the support of the upper house or Senate whose 250 members will, for the last time in 2023, have a say in electing the next prime minister. There is, as yet, no defined agreement between the Bhumjaithai Party which welcomed 31 cobras or defectors into its ranks this week but which, according to recent opinion polls, only enjoys 2.3% public support nationwide, and the sitting prime minister, except for what is thought to be a surprisingly strong working relationship between General Prayut and his deputy Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul. 

Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha (left) this week moved to install the leader of the Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party (RTSC) Mr Pirapan Salirathavibhaga as his Secretary-general in a move which signals he is moving cautiously towards his new political life but also maintaining the status quo of his government. It came as the Bhumjaithai Party welcomed 31 additional ‘cobra’ defectors from other parties further fueling the media narrative that the party has political momentum despite its lowly showing in authoritative NIDA quarterly opinion polls and further speculation that Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul (centre right) may seal a pact with Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha to become his successor when the government leader will be obliged in any event to cede power in April 2025. It is all a highly unlikely scenario given the current opinion polls and the mood of the electorate.

An event was held to welcome new candidates, former or just resigned MPs, at Bhumjaithai Party headquarters in Bangkok this week in an area surrounded by cannabis plants in what can only be described as political theatre designed to bolster confidence in a possible alternative to a Pheu Thai Party government.

The development came as Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha appears to be cautiously moving towards his new political home with the Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party (RTSC) although he has not yet made a formal announcement.

At the same time, it should be noted that General Prayut has never been a member of any political party and has yet to indicate that this will change.

House of Representatives not to be dissolved in 2022 after fewer MP defections than expected 

It is becoming increasingly clear that the prime minister will not dissolve the house prematurely or by December 24th as it had been suggested in late November.

This week, sources close to him were suggesting that he will wait until the House of Representatives is dissolved next year to clarify his political position.

The number of defections by MPs to other political parties this week was lower than what had been speculated upon and does not force the Prime Minister’s hand as regards the dissolution of the House of Representatives, his key constitutional prerogative.

Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party (RTSC) leader expected to be confirmed as Secretary-general to the Prime Minister who has yet to make his foray into politics

The leader of the newly formed Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party (RTSC) which was created by an aide to the Prime Minister, Seksakol Atthawong, in March 2021 as a vehicle for General Prayut’s continued political ambitions following strains within the Palang Pracharat Party, Mr Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, currently, a senior advisor to the Prime Minister, is expected to be confirmed as Secretary-general to the PM following a cabinet meeting next Tuesday.

It comes after the resignation this week of Mr Dissathat Hotrakit who had held the position since 2019.

General Prayut expected to join the Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party (RTSC) after the APEC Summit in Bangkok
3 out 4 believe that Pheu Thai will take power in 2023 with a third Shinawatra taking the reins

Of particular significance was news from the Prime Minister’s Office in recent days that Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha had signed the new organic laws governing the next General Election which are to be sent for royal endorsement next week.

PM signs new organic election laws which give Pheu Thai the edge as government business continues 

These new laws have boosted the chances of the Pheu Thai Party in the next poll with most political observers suggesting that they represent at least 40 extra seats for the main opposition group.

Court decision on electoral law is a big boost for Pheu Thai Party as Prayut remains tight-lipped

A key political analyst and former member of the Election Commission Somchai Srisutthiyakorn indicated that, at the current time, it is unlikely that General Prayut will dissolve the house as he is trying to find a way to retain power.

He suggested that the appointment of Mr Pirapan as Secretary-general to the Prime Minister suggests that the government leader plans to continue running the country in a business-as-usual mode.

‘I think there will be no House dissolution as long as the meetings can proceed,’ Mr Somchai concluded.

Prime Minister has made it clear he wants two more years after the next General Election but does not command the public support required at the polls

The Prime Minister himself has said that he wishes to retain power for a further two years from next year until April 2025 when he will be required under the constitution, in any event, to step down.

The talk from his office this week was that he wished MPs to focus on their parliamentary duties rather than on a General Election.

There is little doubt that the premier is trying to forge a new cross-party alliance that he can come together with after the next election augmented by support from the 250 members of the Senate to thwart with looks increasingly like, a Pheu Thai Party government elected in a landslide which threatens to wipe away the current political order.

The Bhumjaithai Party and Palang Pracharat Party, according to the last authoritative National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) opinion poll in September, only commanded less than 10% support between them.

Backlash from conservative voters over marijuana

However, media coverage in Thailand in recent weeks is suggesting a narrative that the support of MPs defecting from other political parties to Bhumjaithai is an indicator of strong grassroots support for the party which consistently polls disappointingly in authoritative voter surveys and is facing a voter backlash from conservatives particularly in the South of Thailand because of its controversial cannabis policy.

Many of these voters are turning to the Democrat Party.

The policy has seen widespread recreational use and the sale of marijuana legalised at street level in Thailand despite attempts in recent weeks to scale back the high-profile visibility of the drug through police raids and prosecutions under minor laws which has seen the once highly illegal drug now listed as a controlled herb.

Electorate wants a change of government according to consistent opinion polls over the past two years

There has been much talk of voters voting for the candidate or person at the constituency level rather than the party or its policies while at the same time the Bhumjaithai Party is trumpeting its determination and success at delivering the legalisation of cannabis for medical use.

All this flies in the face of the mood of the electorate which consistently, according to opinion polls over the past two years, appears to want to see political change with an overwhelming majority supporting the opposition to form the next government and citing the need for an improved economy as the key concern for the next election.

Event held on Friday at Bhumjaithai Party headquarters to welcome 31 ‘cobras’ to its ranks after the MPs resigned their seats and past party affiliation

At an event held at its party headquarters in Bangkok on Friday, the Bhumjaithai Party welcomed 31 ‘cobras’ or defectors from other parties in a move which was interpreted by party leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, as a sign of confidence in the party’s policies.

The event for which organisers placed cannabis plants on open display, heard Mr Anutin tell those assembled that the Bhumjaithai Party does not think in terms of landslides in the next General Election but rather in terms of more piles being driven into the ground, a comment designed to reflect the party’s particular appeal to farmers and its well-honed folksy, down to earth style.

The event saw 31 MPs resign their positions and switch their allegiance to the Bhumjaithai Party in letters of resignation that were effective on Thursday. These MPs were joined by a handful of others who had resigned in the days previously bringing the total to 34 defecting MPs.

Among the defectors were 11 former MPs from the Palang Pracharat Party, 7 from the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, 5 from the progressive Move Forward Party, 2 from the Setthakij Thai Party (Thai Economic Party) and significantly only one defector from the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest political force and one reported in recent weeks as experiencing a crisis of confidence but apparently, this view may be overstated.

Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin speaks of the party’s spirit of ‘obedience’ and ‘cooperation’ to defecting former MPs as he praised General Prawit

In his address, the Bhumjaithai Party leader and Minister of Public Health who has been tipped to form some sort of alliance with Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha after the General Election and become Thailand’s next anointed prime minister, spoke of his party’s spirit of obedience and co-operation.

He also paid tribute to Palang Pracharat Party leader and fellow Deputy Prime Minister, General Prawit Wongsuwan who he said had always been friendly and helpful to his party.

Earlier in the week, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit told reporters jocularly that the Bhumjaithai Party was welcome to take all his Palang Pracharat MPs and let him then wind down the party if that is what they wished.

Thai politics is quite different and can appear somewhat obscure to western observers, particularly with the current state of parliament and constitution

The machinations taking place in Thailand’s political world appear alien and obscure to many western observers including the tradition of MPs defecting before a General Election, a situation that in the past has caused parliament to be dissolved since the MPs are obliged to resign their seats when switching party allegiance.

However, this week’s movement was nowhere near as large as expected leaving parliament with 442 sitting MPs and a viable quorum of 221.

There are still concerns that the parliament has become dysfunctional with sessions collapsing regularly due to lack of a quorum, a situation which led, on Saturday, to the Pheu Thai Party MP from Ubon Ratchathani, Somkid Chuakhong, challenging the prime minister to dissolve parliament and face the people in a General Election.

He particularly criticised the prime minister for failing to take responsibility for the frequent collapse of parliamentary sessions.

‘General Prayut has been here for eight years, if he is still not satisfied, then come and fight in the election field. The people will be the ones to decide for themselves. Which political party will be the mainstay in forming the government? He comes out saying the collapses are not about the prime minister or a matter for the government. So it is better to dissolve the parliament. Because just controlling the noise in the House of Representatives is still not a viable alternative. How can it create happiness for the people?’ Mr Somkid said.

Pheu Thai Party make a late move to amend the 2017 constitution and remove the Senate’s say in electing the next Prime Minister as parliament rumbles on

At the same time, the Pheu Thai Party, sensing victory in any forthcoming General Election and the possibility that parliament will rumble on until March 23rd next year, is going on the offensive. 

It came forward through Mr Noppadol Pattama, the Vice Chairman of its strategy committee to propose on Saturday a late draft amendment to the 2017 Constitution.

This is aimed at altering the controversial provision under Section 272 which, for the last time, will allow the Thai Senate of 250 unelected members an equal say in selecting the next Prime Minister.

Their vote is likely to be in support of the incumbent General Prayut Chan ocha.

Mr Noppadol said removing this provision would make the vote after the next General Election fairer and more reflective of the will of the people.

He also asserted that it would lead to a more stable democracy and more confidence in the government which is the foundation for economic prosperity.

‘Today we have to go beyond individuals and change the unfair rules to civilised and just principles. This constitutional amendment will prove whether Thai people can design democratic rules or not. All political parties and all candidates for the role of prime minister, if you want to work for the country, you have the right to do so but you should do so under fair and equal rules, compete with dignity and produce pure election results. Justice reflects the will of the people as to which party they want to run the country. If so, the economy will prosper. Politics will be stable,’ Mr Noppadol asserted.

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Further reading:

3 out 4 believe that Pheu Thai will take power in 2023 with a third Shinawatra taking the reins

Court decision on electoral law is a big boost for Pheu Thai Party as Prayut remains tight-lipped

Constitutional Court voting decision a watershed moment for Thai politics says top Pheu Thai MP and whip

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