2022 review: Prayut and Prawit battle for control at the top of Thai politics
After months of ambiguity, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha finally shed light on his political future just days before the end of 2022. General Prayut is set to seek another term in office, though this one will be shortened by the constitutional eight-year term limit for prime ministers.
Abruptly and without ceremony, Prayut told Government House reporters on December 23 that he had agreed to be the prime ministerial candidate of the 20-month-old Ruam Thai Sang Chart (United Thai Nation) Party at the next general election.
He said his decision was made after it became clear that the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, which nominated him as its sole prime ministerial candidate at the last election in March 2019, would choose party leader Prawit Wongsuwan as its sole PM candidate at next year’s poll.
Prayut said he had informed Prawit of his decision and insisted there was no conflict between him and his former brother-in-arms.
Prawit was Prayut’s senior commanding officer in the Royal Thai Army. Both served as chiefs of the Army after emerging from a powerful clique of officers known as the Burapha Phayak (Tigers of the East).
Strategy or mistake?
Despite their strong ties following decades together in the Army, Prayut and Prawit have recently fallen out with each other as years in political power took their toll, analysts say. Their brotherly bond may still be intact, but their political ties have soured. A reported worsening conflict between their separate factions eventually saw the former battlefield comrades part ways.
However, some analysts view their breakup as an electoral strategy involving two claws of a pincer move, implying that their parties will reunite after the election. But other analysts reckon that separation will weaken their shared support base, which comprises mainly of conservatives.
Ruam Thai Sang Chart was set up in March last year by the PM’s former aide Seksakol Atthawong and is led by former justice minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, who was recently appointed as secretary-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Many incumbent MPs from other parties, including Palang Pracharath, are expected to follow Prayut to the new party in the coming weeks. Ruam Thai Sang Chart became a far more attractive proposition for MPs looking for a new party after Prayut announced he would join.
Speculation is rife that Prayut is working to convince a group of “A-list” MPs to join Ruam Thai Sang Chart. The more political heavyweights the party can attract, the higher its chances of winning a substantial number of MP seats in the next election.
However, analysts say that if Prayut’s gravitational pull proves weak, the party’s election hopes will sink and ruin his chance of another term in office. Ruam Thai Sang Chart needs to win at least 25 MP seats to be able to nominate Prayut for the parliamentary PM selection process. To enter the race for the PM seat, political parties must have at least 5% of all 500 MPs in the House of Representatives, which equals 25.
Meanwhile, speculation is growing about a “secret deal” between Palang Pracharath and the core opposition party Pheu Thai to form the next government together.
Such a coalition would benefit both parties and their key figures, observers say. The ruling party would remain in power with its leader Prawit becoming prime minister. And the opposition party would return to power after an eight-year hiatus while its patriarch, convicted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, could fulfill his dream of returning from a lengthy self-imposed exile without having to serve his jail terms.
During the vote for a PM, Prawit can expect support from many of the 250 senators, who were appointed by the junta, of which he was a senior member.
Observers said Prawit seemed to be “rehearsing” to become prime minister when Prayut was suspended as PM in August pending a Constitutional Court verdict on his eight-year tenure limit.
Some analysts said Prawit’s moves as acting prime minister indicated his sights were set on more than just a temporary role.
“I think Prawit deeply wants to become prime minister but this is unlikely to happen in the current term. It may be possible after the next general election,” said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk