Balancing act for Prayut as storm over party leadership looms
A leadership battle is simmering in the core coalition Palang Pracharath Party, with its influential chief strategist General Prawit Wongsuwan being pushed by his supporters in the party to replace current leader Uttama Savanayana.
Key party figures are playing down reports of a power struggle, but they are also refusing to rule out the possibility of Prawit taking the helm of the largest partner in the coalition government.
General Prawit, also a deputy prime minister, has denied lobbying for party executives to resign and make way for a line-up change. However, he has also dismissed a report that he would reject the party’s leadership if it was offered.
“This matter depends on the party members. I have nothing to do with it. They will decide about the party leader,” he said.
Prawit has the backing of certain major factions within Palang Pracharath, who are also reportedly pressing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to reshuffle the Cabinet and give them more seats.
The pressure for change comes amid growing dissatisfaction with the party’s current leadership, with attacks directed at Uttama and party secretary-general Sontirat Sontijirawong, who rumours say will be replaced by Deputy Finance Minister Santi Promphat.
Political observers say Palang Pracharath’s leadership will inevitably change sometime in the future, though this may not be the right time as the government is busy tackling the Covid-19 crisis.
Stithorn Thananithichot, a political scientist at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, said he expects Prawit to become the next party leader if he and his supporters are determined in that aim.
The academic added that General Prayut will not stand in the way, even though having Prawit as party leader would turn the PM’s “brother-in-arms” into a new lightning rod.
Prawit is considered a weak link in Prayut’s administration, due mainly to the scandal over his multimillion-baht wristwatch collection, which continues to haunt him despite his denials of corruption.
Many observers see the possibility of Prayut deciding to take the leader’s post himself, as that could put an end to the party’s power battle. However, other analysts rule out this scenario.
As the government’s head and the party’s only PM candidate, Prayut commands the respect of Palang Pracharath politicians. Meanwhile he has chosen not to hold an executive position in the party, because he wants to keep his distance from politicians bargaining for positions, said observers.
Palang Pracharath was formed before the general election last year, as a vehicle by which the post-coup junta could stay in power. Yet, since many of its members hail from different parties, the party naturally has many different factions.
Uttama, who is also finance minister, is a member of the “Four Boys” faction, which holds several key posts in the party. The three other “boys” are Sontirat, deputy leader Suvit Maesincee, and executive member Kobsak Pootrakool.
As technocrats and non-MPs, the “Four Boys” also hold coveted Cabinet seats. Rival factions are clearly eyeing their ministerial posts and certainly want changes to be made at the helm in the hope of replacing them in the Cabinet. And given they have no parliamentary base, it will be easier to wrestle posts from these “Four Boys” than from other powerful factions who boast many MPs.
Earlier this month, Prayut appeared to be trying to defuse the power struggle. He reportedly held talks with Uttama and Sontirat at Government House before being quoted as saying he was satisfied with their performance.
However, Prayut’s backing was not enough to stop Prawit’s supporters from lobbying party executives to resign to pave the way for a new executive board to be elected.
With more than a decade in politics and strong political connections, Prawit is far better versed than Uttama in dealing – and bargaining – with party members.
Uttama, previously a university lecturer, only played a minor political role as a ministerial adviser before he joined Prayut’s post-coup government in August 2015.
Prawit, meanwhile, is described as a man with charisma and influence who can make party politicians toe the line.
“General Prawit’s experience means he is able to lead the party in the best and most suitable way, and I believe all party members respect him,” Palang Pracharath MP Sira Jenjaka said recently, adding “everyone respects his decisions and is ready to follow him”.
Palang Pracharath is due to convene its next general meeting in mid-June, and the election of a new executive board could very well be on the agenda.
Next week, the House of Representatives is set to consider three executive decrees that empower the government to secure Bt1.9 trillion in loans to help cushion the impact of Covid-19. Only a majority vote in the decrees’ favour can save the government from embarrassment, which would bring pressure on the premier to resign. To secure that majority, Prayut must ensure Palang Pracharath MPs vote as a unified block.
If Prayut fails to defuse party infighting, the fate of not just the decrees but also the government could hang in the balance.
By ThaiPBS World’s Political Desk