Does Thammanat Prompao still have power to change course of Thai politics?
Thammanat Prompao has become a party leader for the first time in his career — a crowning success for any politician. However, analysts say his recent rise to head the Thai Economic Party is unlikely to benefit this powerbroker, who is more used to working underground than under the limelight.
For them, Thammanat’s latest career move has only a slim chance of impacting Thai politics ahead of the upcoming censure debate against the government.
The no-confidence debate, expected to take place next month, will target Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and nine other key Cabinet members, according to the opposition. This will be the last such debate during this Parliament, which completes its four-year term in March next year.
Thammanat, previously the ruling Palang Pracharath Party’s secretary-general, has been at odds with Prayut ever since he was ousted from the Cabinet after allegedly engineering a plot to topple the PM at the previous censure debate last September.
‘Good underground operator’
“Thammanat is good at working underground but when he comes under the spotlight, I don’t think he can make progress politically,” said Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University.
The analyst said that Thammanat’s influence mainly derived from the support and connections he enjoys via Palang Pracharath leader Prawit Wongsuwan.
“His problem is that he is arrogant and overestimates his abilities. In fact, it was Prawit who gave him his power and charisma. That’s why he rose so fast [politically] to become a larger-than-life figure. He was given too much status,” said Wanwichit.
However, the pundit acknowledged that Thammanat was an effective powerbroker, having recently succeeded in securing three seats for his party on the committee tasked with scrutinizing the 3.185-trillion-baht Budget Bill for 2023. Obtaining panel seats from the Cabinet quota requires the PM’s consent.
But while that kind of short-term politicking may be easy for Thammanat, the new party leader may find similar success harder to achieve in the long term, including at the next election, the analyst commented.
During his time in the ruling party, Thammanat managed to outmaneuver rival party heavyweights thanks to his dealmaking and troubleshooting skills. His strategy was credited with securing Palang Pracharath victories in several by-elections.
However, Wanwichit estimates that the Thai Economic Party will see only half of its current 18 MPs re-elected in the next national vote.
Working with technocrats
He pointed to Thammanat’s character and style of work as the reason why high-profile figures like former commerce minister Mingkwan Saengsuwan, who previously led the New Economics Party, and ex-finance minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala, turned down his invitation to lead his party’s economic “dream team”.
“Those technocrats have high social values and require a high level of independence. They seem to be uninterested in coming under Thammanat’s command,” said Wanwichit.
Working with Thammanat could also tarnish their public image, he added. Thammanat, he said, is better suited to leading a small party or first-time MPs, rather than veteran politicians.
“Thammanat has built a house larger than he can live in or handle,” concluded the political pundit.
Thammanat took over his party’s helm after General Vitch Devahasdin Na Ayudhya, who is close to Prawit, stepped down following their conflict, reportedly over the party’s standpoint in the coalition. Vitch described Thai Economic as a coalition partner while Thammanat preferred to leave its position unclear, to boost his party’s bargaining power.
Can he do it again?
Some observers insist Thammanat’s new role as party leader could raise the pressure on Prayut at the upcoming censure debate. They still remember the dramatic upheaval caused by behind-the-scenes maneuvering last year. However, analysts rule out the possibility of a repeat at this latest censure debate.
Opposition parties said they would submit their censure motion with House Speaker Chuan Leekpai on Wednesday (June 15) for the debate to take place in early July.
Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, reckons that Thammanat’s new and bigger role will not have any serious political impact as far as the censure debate is concerned.
He argued that Thammanat will have only 18 MPs under his control, and as long as there is no rift among the coalition partners, the government will not be ousted by a majority no-confidence vote.
“Thammanat often tries to carve out a political space in order to add ‘more value’ to himself,” said the analyst.
The powerbroker recently made headlines by attempting to build an alliance with small political parties and the opposition leader Pheu Thai Party. In April, he joined the launch of the Sarng Anakot Thai Party, which was co-founded by former Palang Pracharath colleagues Uttama Savanayana and Sonthirat Sonthijirawong.
No easy task
“It is more difficult to trigger changes in politics now as the next general election is just around the corner,” said Yuthaporn.
Even if Thammanat does attempt another plot to oust Prayut at the upcoming no-confidence debate, he would likely fail again, the analyst predicted.
Wanwichit added that the most Thammanat could do was to embarrass his enemies in the ruling party by garnering as many no-confidence votes as possible against them.
All three of his arch-rivals are being targeted by the opposition for grilling — Digital Economy and Society Minister Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn, Labor Minister Suchart Chomklin, and Deputy Finance Minister Santi Promphat.
“Thammanat may want to take revenge on the trio of government ministers rather than directly target Prayut,” said the analyst.
The trio, who are viewed as PM Prayut’s men as well as his eyes and ears in the ruling party, are known to have been in conflict with Thammanat, since he fought against their faction to secure the powerful post of party secretary-general.
The long power struggle he waged with the trio’s faction led to Thammanat and his faction being expelled from the party by Palang Pracharath’s executive board in January.
Although they are no longer in the same party, Thammanat and the three Cabinet members launch veiled attacks on each through the media from time to time, though without naming names.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk