11 July 2024

Palang Pracharath Party’s move to expel secretary-general Thammanat Prompao and 20 other MPs under his control is more of a political soap opera than an actual split, analysts say. It’s a win-win game for all involved – while voters get nothing, they add.

The ruling party on Wednesday (Jan 19) decided to oust Thammanat and his faction, allegedly causing division by demanding a party overhaul. It is believed that Thammanat and his faction wanted the party restructured in a bid to obtain ministerial seats.

Now, Thammanat and his 20 cronies have only 30 days to find a new party so they can hang on to their MP status.

Thammanat has been at loggerheads with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha since September last year when the then-party secretary-general reportedly plotted to unseat the premier in a censure debate.

The ouster comes a few months after Prayut fired Thammanat as deputy agriculture minister and Narumon Pinyosinwatas as deputy labor minister as punishment. However, Thammanat’s close ties with the party leader and Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan allowed him to retain the powerful post of party secretary-general.

Who wins, who loses?

On the surface, it looks like Thammanat has lost the battle, while Palang Pracharath has lost a key to winning the next election. Thammanat is arguably the ruling coalition’s most powerful political broker and played a crucial role in securing victory in the last general election and by-elections since.

Analysts, however, see this as a win-win game for all sides – Prayut, other factions in the ruling party, and Thammanat himself.

Thammanat achieved his goal of leaving the party and could now take with him 20 MPs to set up his own “independent” power base, said Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok’s Institute.

Reports say the faction is likely to join a new party called Setthakij Thai (Thai Economics Party) to be led by General Vitch Devahasdin Na Ayudhya, head of Palang Pracharath’s strategy team, with Prawit’s younger brother Pol General Patcharawat as party advisor.

Vitch has enjoyed close ties with Prawit since their early years in the Army three decades ago. It was Vitch who reportedly introduced Thammanat to the deputy PM.

“This is like Thammanat is moving from an older brother’s party to a younger brother’s party,” Stithorn said.

Commanding 22 MPs in a new party that will likely join the government coalition, Thammanat will have more power to demand the two ministerial portfolios he was reportedly seeking, the analyst said.

“Now they can make their political moves independently, without needing to comply with either the [Palang Pracharath] party or an outsider with influence over the party,” staunch government critic Somchai Srisutthiyakorn wrote on Facebook.

Escaping scot-free

Last but not least, Thammanat can escape any blame for recent by-election losses in the South.

Despite the former secretary-general’s best efforts, Palang Pracharath lost Sunday’s (Jan 16) by-elections in Chumphon and Songkhla provinces to its Democrat Party coalition partner.

Thammanat was blamed for the loss after he called on voters in Hat Yai to choose a candidate “from a family with pedigree and wealth” – words voters may have interpreted as meaning they could be bought off.

“Thammanat is [like] a warlord who lost the battle but turned himself into the leader of an ‘independent’ state, a new coalition partner,” Stithorn said.

Meanwhile, other ruling party factions that were locked in a power struggle with Thammanat’s troops can now sit back – and perhaps even grab the party’s No 2 post of secretary-general.

Prawit was quoted as saying at a party meeting on Wednesday evening: “If he [Thammanat] wants to leave, let him go so that peace can return.”

Surprise hinted in Thamanat’s video released after Palang Pracharat party dismissal

Did Prayut really win?

Meanwhile, analysts say Prayut can claim victory because his enemy has finally been expelled, leaving him in control of the remaining MPs who still support him.

However, the Prayut government may have lost its control in Parliament. Minus Thammanat’s faction, the coalition government is left with a slim majority of 246 against 208 opposition MPs, and this may pose difficulties when key legislation comes up for the vote.

Analysts believe that though the 21 dissident MPs plan to join a party that is close to Prawit, they will be willing to topple the government if their demands are not met. They can also bargain in exchange for their votes on important bills or no-confidence motions.

Prayut has one card up his sleeve to deal with discord – House dissolution and an early election – but analysts doubt that he will play it.

Real reason for the ouster

Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Ubon Ratchathani University’s Faculty of Political Science, believes Thammanat’s ouster is not significant enough to undermine the government’s stability, since the real aim is to prolong the coalition’s stay in power.

“Hence, they will not destroy each other. It’s not breaking up. They will stay on, and meantime make bargains for their own interests. The public, however, will gain nothing,” Titipol said.

Prayut will only dissolve the House if he has no other choice, said the analyst. After all, he wants to stay until his term ends in March 2023 and then maybe for another term, he added.

“It’s too soon [to dissolve the House] now. Calling an early election would be political suicide [for all parties]. No party is in a position to win by a landslide.”

Prayut on Thursday insisted he had no plan to reshuffle the Cabinet or dissolve the House for an early general election. He said relevant laws still need to be completed.

He was referring to two organic laws on the electoral system – the switch from a one-ballot to a two-ballot system, and political party affairs. The bills are set to be tabled by February but will likely be delayed amid a long process and disagreement among political parties.

Time’s not right

Stithorn agreed, saying Prayut would only dissolve the House to prolong his time in power, not just to call an election.

Calling an early election before the two organic laws are passed would create a legal hurdle regarding whether the election should be held under the new or the old system.

“That would pave the way for the government to remain as caretaker until the legal hurdle is resolved or reviewed in court. That would take even longer,” he predicted.

Alternatively, if Prayut really wants an early election, he can use his executive power to draft his own election bill to benefit the party that supports him, the analyst said.

“However, I don’t think the parties, including Palang Pracharath, are ready for an election under the new system,” Stithorn said.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk