22 May 2024

Pheu Thai and Move Forward are reportedly not seeing eye to eye. But neither are Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Palang Pracharath, and the latter pair’s conflict can be more serious. In addition, anti-establishment protesters risk being torn apart by infighting, mistrust, generational gaps, and shocking claims about how donations have been mobilized and then used.

Nobody is smiling and anything can happen. An outrageous theory has Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharath conspire to get Move Forward and perhaps Prayut out of the way through jointly-agreed constitutional amendments. This scenario could end with Prayut dissolving Parliament to reset the national chessboard in his favour.

Thailand is deep in a state of flux and game of brinkmanship, with COVID-19 providing an increasingly influential backdrop. News that certain hospitals are facing a shortage of beds and equipment is competing for headline space with debate on how many ballots voters should cast in a general election and on the origin, relevance, and power of the Senate.

Even the “fans” are being split. There are anti-establishment supporters who are leaning ever closer toward Pheu Thai and drifting away and away from Move Forward and vice versa. For “the other side”, the love for Prayut means many are viewing Palang Pracharath with great suspicion, and those vehemently supporting Palang Pracharath are not viewing the prime minister with the same affection.

Many suspect that a Palang Pracharath-Pheu Thai conspiracy is a main reason why Parliament is eager to return Thailand to a two-ballot system, which should benefit them and put Move Forward at a disadvantage. The suspicion is based on the fact that Move Forward reaped substantial gains from the one-ballot system in the previous election and the dissolution of a Pheu Thai “affiliate”, the Thai Raksa Chart Party.

Move Forward, tongue-tied as the one-ballot system is a key element in this Constitution which the party has been condemning, has tried to promote its own version of a two-ballot system which could soften the blow but is more complicated. Prayut, meanwhile, can simply dissolve Parliament to maintain the one-ballot system if he doesn’t like two ballots.

Will new referendum law help unlock Thailand’s political impasse – or just deepen divisions?

The government-sponsored bill paves the way for a public vote on whether the population wants a new Constitution to be written by a charter drafting assembly (CDA). The new bill was passed after the Constitutional Court ruled in March that a referendum must be held before any overhaul of the charter.

A House dissolution will tame both Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharath. Move Forward, too, is unlikely to welcome a snap election under the existing rules and political circumstances, in which the party has seen major setbacks in recent rural elections and legal controversies rocking its de facto leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

Problem for Prayut is that a House dissolution will drive him and Palang Pracharath further apart and the rest of the government coalition is not powerful enough to ensure him a second term. While a snap election would keep the Senate’s power to join the House of Representatives in appointing the next prime minister, senators would be under immense pressure to back a candidate favoured by the majority of MPs.

Last but not least, there is COVID-19, which has significantly eroded Prayut’s popularity but, intriguingly, has done so without boosting the ratings of his opponents. The public health crisis is amplifying economic hardships, creating a perfect storm that can make or break a political leader.

Now is the time when protesters should be united and show the kind of forces that can make Prayut a pushover. But the street movement has been splintered itself, rattled by court orders, donation scandals and infighting. State measures against COVID-19 may have been cited as the main reason why protests on Thursday, June 24, were all but feeble, but the truth is that the movement has other problems apart from the coronavirus, and all of them have originated from the inside.

There will be more protests, more debate on proposed constitutional amendments, and more rumours about wavering, or shifting, or dissolving political alliances. All these will take place as the real enemy, COVID-19, keeps ongoing with only one simple goal in mind.

By Tulsathit Taptim