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Thailand’s Prayuth Maneuvers to Stay in Power
As elections loom, premier may be forced to flee his own party for one that would back him
With Thailand’s national elections less than six months away, the country’s wily dictator Prayuth Chan-ocha is once again looking for ways to extend his eight-year premiership, which began in 2014 with a military coup. There is a growing split in his military-dominated Palang Pracharat Party that is likely to impel Prayuth to form his own party or find a new one in which to contest.
With or without Prayuth, political observers increasingly are expecting a change in government that would end eight years of corrupt and inefficient military rule. The odds-on favorites, if the military doesn’t intervene again, are the opposition forces led by Pheu Thai, the surrogate of long-ousted billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced to flee the country in 2006, and Bhumjaithai, headed by current Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and backed by rural northeastern godfather Newin Chidchob. In 2019, Pheu Thai-affiliated parties scored a narrow numerical victory only to be thwarted by Palang Pracharat and a coterie of so-called “cobra” parties that jumped from the opposition to back Prayuth.
Prayuth nearly lost his job as prime minister in August when the country’s highest court suspended him on an opposition petition which alleged he had served past the constitutional limit of eight years in power. However, the court reversed itself a month later under what critics said was questionable reasoning, bending the language of the Constitution to say he had come into office not at the date of the 2014 military coup that ended representative democracy but much later, when the junta rewrote the constitution to restart the government as an ostensible parliamentary democracy. Many complained that Prayuth had used undue influence to get the court to change its mind.
“General Prayuth has been setting the Thai political world ablaze with speculation about his next moves, and whether he will stay with the ruling Palang Pracharat or skip to another, more recently founded political party,” said a source with a foreign NGO. “But it doesn't really matter because his approval ratings are in the dumps.”
The government is deeply unpopular because of the junta’s economic mismanagement, with GDP growth having fallen to minus 6.1 percent in 2020 before recovering weakly to 1.6 percent growth, according to the World Bank, in 2021. It picked up in the third quarter of 2022 on mobility, tourist inflows, and improved employment.
But household debt is crippling. The Central Bank of Thailand recently announced that as of June, the ratio of household loans to GDP was a staggering 89.2 percent, a 16-year high and the highest in the world. Nominally, Thailand’s household loans amount to the equivalent of US$388 billion.
Two measures passed by the parliament – legalization of cannabis, pushed through at the behest of the Bhumjaithai party, and foreign ownership of land for residential use – have proven unpopular and have blown up in the government’s face.
Few are satisfied with the government’s running of the country, a feeling that has been growing as the continued Covid-19 pandemic hangover plagues the country. In addition, the 73-year-old Thaksin has been drawing closer in recent months from his perch in Dubai and on a subterranean basis he has been taking a bigger role in Thai politics. He has been seen frequently in the region, where he is believed to be meeting with Red Shirt and other leaders who were forced to flee the country in the wake of the 2014 coup that brought Prayuth to power.
In contrast to Thaksin and what was then Thai Rak Thai, who empowered the rural impoverished members of the northeast region of the country, the only ones who are seen to have gained through the government’s eight years of rule are the business elites whose monopoly power is regarded by critics to have grown over retail, telecommunications, and other sectors of the economy, leaving rank-and-file Thais ignored.
That has led to a resurgence of the opposition, led by Pheu Thai, the country’s biggest political party, which is leading in opinion polls in almost every region in the country except the south, where Prayuth still holds on by a very thin margin.
Pheu Thai’s de facto leader is now Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn, who was appointed chief of the party’s “Inclusion and Innovation Adviser Committees” and is expected to be appointed prime minister should Pheu Thai win, running the government as a surrogate for Thaksin, as his sister Yingluck did before she was deposed in 2014. Yingluck was eventually forced to flee the country ahead of corruption charges, as Thaksin was himself in 2006.
By and large, Pheu Thai was considered to have a decent track record despite its 2014 ouster-by-coup. It is seeking to rebrand itself to appeal to the youth and also possibly has an attractive ally in the Move Forward Party, which was formed after the youth-oriented Future Forward Party was ordered dissolved by the Constitutional Court on what was regarded as a pretext ordered by the military. Move Forward, with 56 of Future Forward’s MPs having decamped to the new party, is regarded by political observers as the party to watch in the upcoming election.
“All eyes are on the November 23 ruling on the endorsement of an amendment of the country’s election law by the constitutional court, saying the amendment allows the national polls to go forward next year,” said a longtime diplomatic source.
No one really knows when the next election will be called but it has to be before March 23, setting up December 24 as the next big date on the political calendar, the constitutional deadline for politicians to decide which party they will join in order to run in the upcoming election. By then all questions about Prayuth's party-hopping should be resolved.
“There is also no clear information about when the election will be called, which can happen any time between now and March 23, depending on the whims of PM Prayuth,” said a longtime Thailand resident and political observer. “ Many have speculated that he wants to remain in power through at least the New Year holiday season, when a raft of government goodies and hand-outs are inevitably distributed, trying to persuade the voters that he's not so bad after all.”
Others are pointing to whether the government will wait for a hoped-for economic bump from the tourism sector to bounce back during the current tourist high season, which should have started at the start of November. But so far, that's been very uneven and far short of what was expected – although 50,000 Russian tourists have been reported in Phuket. Many are presumed to have fled Russia as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
There is a strong possibility that if Prayuth is forced by the court to depart, Palang Pracharat will be left in the hands of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, a senior general who may be one of the few politicians even more unpopular than Prayuth, partly because of credible allegations of visible corruption in an army leadership that has done little to hide their aspirations to acquire illegal gains. Prawit, it is said, could reliably be counted on to drive the party off the cliff into political ruin.
“Good riddance is the best way to characterize that attitude,” said the NGO source. “The young people, in particular, are particularly incensed about Prayuth and the conservative establishment who resisted any reform, and then crushed their protests and aspirations, sending hundreds to prison for exercising their basic rights.”
As with the 2019 election, another wave of under 35s is expected to overwhelmingly throw their support to the Move Forward Party, which is regarded by many as having serious ideas about how to make changes in a society and economy that many young people view as firmly tilted against them.
As for the Democrat Party, their Bangkok wing is all but dead, with MPs defecting, many to Pheu Thai and with the governorship in the hands of the phenomenally popular Chadchart Sittipunt, an independent but a Pheu Thai ally. Party leader Jurin Laksanawisit is proving to be an incapable leader, critics say.
“The Democrats' crass opportunism is best demonstrated in their new effort to re-criminalize cannabis, one of the few bright spots in the economy – and it shows their desperation,” another local source said. “In the past, the Democrats at least had the appearance of caring about democratic principles and rule of law, but now they have become just another conservative knee-jerk party trying to hold on to their base in the south, and being flanked on the right by pro-military parties.
Both Pheu Thai and Bhumjaithai have regional support bases in the heavily populated North and Northeast. Although a source said the two are the clear alternative to continued misrule by the pro-military parties and their micro-party allies, the possible ascension of Bhumjaithai has been met with a shudder by those who are concerned with the party’s leadership by Newin, who is regarded by many as little more than a gangster.
Nonetheless, “Thais are tired of remote-control military rule through the likes of Prayuth and Prawit, and this election should mark a clean break with the past eight years of misrule, repression, corruption, and pandemic-fueled economic misery,” a political analyst said. “Pheu Thai and Bhumjaithai may be a part of the establishment but they are different enough from Palang Pracharat to be seen as a viable alternative by pragmatic voters wanting to send a message that they want change.
The only person who is likely sad to see Prayuth going – if in fact he does – is likely King Vajiralongkorn, “who apparently has gotten used to Prayuth's 'yes sir' style unquestioning loyalty, and willingness to bend over backwards to appease the palace's political interference and sometimes ridiculous directives. But even the palace won't be able to save Prayuth this time around, no matter how much they wish they could” said the long-time political analyst.