Few twists and turns as Prayut government survives censure
The Prayut government has passed its first test of confidence with an overwhelming number of votes, but the aftermath of Thailand’s first no-confidence motion in six years has served up some interesting surprises.
For the government, the road ahead is not strewn with roses, while the opposition bloc appears to be developing some serious divides.
It was no surprise that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is also defence minister, and his five Cabinet members sailed through the no-confidence motion on Friday (February 28), but the four-day debate marathon culminated with a twist.
It should be noted that this is the first time that a censure debate has closed with no conclusive remarks from the opposition. The opposition was expected to deal a knock-out punch, so MPs would have been persuaded to cast no-confidence votes.
Also, this is perhaps the only censure debate in the history of Thai politics to have the lowest number of no-confidence votes against a government. While each of the six targeted ministers received 269 to 277 votes of confidence, only 49 to 55 no-confidence votes came from the 215 opposition MPs.
Most importantly, this is perhaps the first censure debate in which a core opposition party failed to participate in voting on the most important motion they submitted to scrutinise the government.
And what happened was the result of the vote boycott on Friday by the biggest opposition party Pheu Thai, which has 135 MPs, and other opposition parties, even though MPs from the now-defunct Future Forward Party attended every meeting and cast their votes.
The boycott was claimed to be in protest of the opposition being denied extra time at the end of the censure debate on Thursday night.
MPs of the now-defunct Future Forward Party accused its ally Pheu Thai of stealing their share of the time allocated to the debate. The MPs were upset they missed their chance to grill Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda.
In fact, those MPs queried if there had been an “under table deal” between some of the opposition parties and the coalition camp.
With the rift, critics have been wondering whether the opposition bloc was even able to perform its role of scrutinising the government.
The public naturally cried foul after Pheu Thai announced its boycott of the vote. The hashtag #iinstructedyoutoattendthehousemeeting, referring to Pheu Thai’s move, was trending on Twitter from Thursday evening to Friday morning with more than 1.2 million tweets with the hashtag.
“The rift in the opposition bloc will certainly weaken it and create a problem with its unity. They will need to urgently fix this rift, or the opposition will end up failing the public, while the government makes the most of this divide,” said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammatirat Open University.
The government’s weaknesses
The government, meanwhile, has a clear majority or 273 MPs, while the opposition is left with 215 MPs since the Constitutional Court disbanded Future Forward for borrowing Bt191.2-million from its leader Thanathorn Jungroongruangkit.
The court also banned the party’s 16 executives from politics for 10 years. Of the 16, 11 were members of Parliament. The remaining 65 MPs were given 60 days to find a new party to maintain their status.
The government benefitted from Future Forward’s dissolution, because nine MPs from the now-defunct party have joined Bhumjaithai Party making it the second largest coalition partner with 61 MPs in hand.
Certainly, the bigger the party the more bargaining power it has.
Now that Bhumjaithai has gained an upper hand, there is one thing that can be foreseen – the party will seek a Cabinet reshuffle so it can get one more ministry to account for the increase in its MPs.
Prime Minister Prayut was quick to dismiss speculation of an imminent Cabinet reshuffle in the aftermath of the censure. But political analysts believe that the possibility of a mini-reshuffle is always there with Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thammanat Prompow, who won the least number of confidence votes from the government camp with 269, in the cross-hairs.
Undoubtedly, reallocating the Cabinet seat or reshuffling the Cabinet is bound to create a headache for the core Palang Pracharath Party.
Meanwhile, though the dissolution of Future Forward has helped strengthen the government’s stability, it has also escalated the political temperature.
After his party was dissolved, Thanathorn set up Future Forward Group to replace his now-defunct party, and vowed to continue advocating his party’s ideology by launching an “off-Parliament” political movement.
The party dissolution has also sparked nationwide demonstrations by university and high-school students against what they see is unfair treatment of the country’s third largest political party. Critics say this is by far the largest demonstration by students since the October 1973 uprising.
The dissolution of Future Forward was the last straw for students and these flash mobs can elevate to protests of a larger scale, Yuthaporn warned.
“Student movements create political uncertainty, while street politics [from the Future Forward movement] can be foreseen. This combination can turn into a demand for the government to resign, calls for House dissolution or even a coup if there is violence,” the academic said.
Lastly, the points that leave the Prayut government most vulnerable are the economic downturn and social issues such as the handling of the Covid-19 outbreak and the ultra-fine toxic PM2.5 particles in the air.
“These issues are common problems for people regardless of their political ideology. So, if the government fails to tackle these problems soon, they [the affected people] can become a major force for the government to reckon with and may shake its stability,” Yuthaporn said.
How the House voted
Confidence No-confidence Abstentions
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha: 272 49 2
Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan: 277 50 2
Deputy PM Wissanu Krea-ngam: 272 54 2
Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda: 272 54 2
Foreign Minister Don Pramudvinai: 272 55 2
Deputy Agriculture Minister
Thammanat Prompow: 269 55 7