Thai PM Prayuth Out, Now the Jockeying Begins
Political scramble likely to consume coming weeks
The August 24 suspension of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha by Thailand’s Constitutional Court – if he is unable to reverse it – appears certain to kick off a political scramble that is likely to last for several weeks or even months as competing forces from the military, the royalty and rejuvenated opposition reform parties vie to replace him.
It remains to be seen if the court, which seemingly makes few decisions based on the law, follows through by actually ending Prayuth’s eight-year reign at the head of Thailand’s government. It is a role Prayuth engineered for himself following the military coup he led in 2014 to end the country’s democratically elected government. However, the constitution he helped to write states that “The Prime Minister shall not hold office for more than eight years in total, whether or not holding consecutive terms.” It is a provision written in to thwart the return of Thaksin Shinawatra, who remains a potent force in the country despite being forced into exile more than a decade and a half ago and who continues to preoccupy the Bangkok elites who fear his populist appeal for the rural poor.
Now the provision is being used against Prayuth. He assumed office eight years ago after the coup although his followers have continued to insist that his term officially began in April 2017, when the latest constitution went into effect, or June 2019, when he was sworn in following national elections.
While ostensibly the court based its decision on a petition by minority parties arguing Prayuth’s term had legally ended, in fact, the court primarily takes its cues first from the royalty and King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is said to have tired of Prayuth, and whose palace retinue has been privately critical of him, or factions in the military and the elite. For all the fighting under the blanket, the suspension probably means one faction or another succeeded in amassing the clout to push him out.
Prayuth shouldn’t be counted out completely. He remains minister of defense until the next premier is chosen and he retains the loyalty of at least some of the military. He has proved a wily strategist, having survived an election his coalition lost and a series of no-confidence votes in the parliament, the most recent earlier this year in which he punished the leaders of factions who sought to overthrow him.
Although all three members of the ruling triumvirate –Prayuth, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, and Anupong Poachinda, the interior minister – have sworn fealty to each other, both are said to be out to get rid of him. The court’s decision to suspend him means Prawit becomes acting premier while Prayuth presumably tries to figure out ways to push the elderly Prawit aside.
It is uncertain how long the court will take to act. By some estimates, it could take up to two months although that seems unrealistic. But in the meantime, the competing forces will be seeking primacy. Aside from the palace, which has injected itself into politics almost as never before, those competing forces include factions within Palang Pracharat, the military’s main vehicle disguised as a political party. In addition to Prawit, who is considered too old at 77 and too corrupt, and Anupong, there is Apirat Kongsompong, another former army commander-in-chief who has grown close to the 70-year-old king, who spends most of his time in Germany.
Then there is Pheu Thai, Thaksin’s surrogate party and who remains powerful despite having been ousted from power in 2006 by the military and having been driven into exile in Dubai, where he continues to pull political strings. His daughter Paetongtarn was appointed last October as chief of the “Inclusion and Innovation Adviser Committees” of the party, which means Pheu Thai is effectively in Thaksin’s hands despite the 5,000 km distance.
Despite being trampled by a series of court decisions and other setbacks, Pheu Thai seems alive and well, particularly – although he isn’t a member – because of the energetic performance of the popular Chadchart Sittipunt, the pro-democracy candidate who won the Bangkok governorship in a landslide in June and who formerly belonged to Pheu Thai. He is believed to still be connected to the party despite professing otherwise. Nonetheless, he has become the fresh face of the opposition by actually working to govern the chaotic city. In addition, the youth-oriented Future Forward Party, which was ordered dissolved last year after it became perceived as a popular threat, has been reconstituted as the Move Forward Party.
Perhaps the main issue is that after eight years in power, the military, even masquerading as a political party, has proved it is mediocre at managing both the economy and the government. It appears tired and uninventive, with GDP the lowest in Southeast Asia, and with perceptions that it mismanaged the Covid-19 crisis. Its stewardship of Bangkok, perhaps the most visible manifestation of military rule, was in the hands of a retired police general named Aswin Kwanmuang, appointed in 2016 and who was almost invisible. In his attempt at reelection earlier this year, he finished a dismal fifth.
No election is due before next March. However, as with most things in Thailand, this could be subject to change. In the most recent general election, Pheu Thai, Future Forward, and smaller opposition parties actually won a majority in the 500-member lower house but were thwarted when Prayuth managed to lure a handful of “cobra” parties to change sides.
Should the military actually step out of the way, many see Anutin Charnveerakul, the deputy prime minister and public health minister – and the architect of Thailand’s spectacular legalization of cannabis – as a likely strong contender. He is the putative leader of the Bhumjaithai Party although the Bhumjaithai godfather is Newin Chidchob, a thuggish northeastern Thai godfather whom many suspect of being involved in the drug trade.
Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the former leader of the sagging Democrat Party – which was unable to hold onto the governorship of its traditional stronghold of Bangkok – is still around and a possible unlikely long-shot candidate. Others are Chadchart Sittipunt, given his considerable popularity as Bangkok governor, and Sudarat Keyuraphan, formerly a Pheu Thai official who led the splinter Thai Sang Thai Party.