Govt will survive no-confidence debate, but at what cost?
With their clear majority in the House, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the nine other targeted ministers are expected to sail through the second no-confidence debate in the two years his government has been in office.
Observers, however, worry about possible unrest amid planned anti-establishment protests on voting day.
The vote on the four-day censure debate is scheduled for Saturday (Feb 20).
PM Prayut is joined in the opposition’s crosshairs by Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit, Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin, Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda, Deputy Interior Minister Nipon Bunyamanee, Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan, Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob and Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Promprao.
The government has a clear majority of 276 MPs to the opposition’s 211. Ousting a targeted minister requires the votes of more than half of all 487 MPs, or 244 votes. To do this, 33 ruling MPs would need to join the opposition in voting against the minister.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha abruptly cut short his explanation of the southern economic zone project and walked out of the parliament chamber on Thursday afternoon, apparently upset that a group of MPs were not paying attention to him. “I think I will stop here because no one is listening, but laughing.
Wheeling and dealing
Opposition parties boast they possess a “knockout” punch that will topple some ministers. But in reality, the ministers’ fate depends on the unity of the government camp.
Observers see little possibility of ruling coalition parties voting against any ministers, especially since leaders of its three key parties – Palang Pracharath, Bhumjaithai and the Democrats – are among the censure targets. Ministers from the two smaller parties, Chartthaipattana and Action Coalition for Thailand, were left out of the no-confidence motion.
The three main parties are bound to have made deals among parties to ensure support for those being targeted.
However, observers predict the number of votes received by each minister will vary due to internal power struggles, as has been seen in previous debates.
Education Minister Nataphol could see his approval vote suffer from a conflict within the ruling party over who will run for Bangkok governor, said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
Nataphol recently angered fellow Palang Pracharath members when he challenged party leader Prawit’s choice for the gubernatorial election. Nataphol is pushing for his wife Taya as a contender, while Prawit reportedly favours former police chief Chakthip Chaijinda.
Meanwhile, a widening rift between the ruling party and Democrats over the upcoming Nakhon Si Thammarat by-election could impact the vote for targeted Democrat ministers.
In last year’s censure debate, Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat obtained the lowest approval vote of the six targeted Cabinet members. Certain Democrat MPs said they wanted to vote against him, but were prevented from doing so by their party’s resolution.
Thammanat’s camp may take revenge by not backing the Democrat ministers in Saturday’s vote, Yuthaporn said.
However, Prayut has apparently anticipated the potential for conflict. The PM recently threatened a shake-up unless the Cabinet ensured all ministers received an equal number of confidence votes.
“[All ruling MPs] must share responsibility. Don’t incite internal conflicts,” he was quoted as saying at the Cabinet meeting on Monday (Feb 15).
Both Prayut and Prawit need to control a rebellion among smaller members of the coalition. These parties boasting about 20 MPs, vowed last week to vote independently of the coalition’s resolution in order to represent the public interest. The move is seen as a manoeuvre aimed at securing ministerial portfolios in a Cabinet reshuffle.
Hoping for a spark
The opposition, meanwhile, has acknowledged it does not have enough votes to oust any ministers, but hopes information revealed in the debate will rock the public’s faith in Prayut’s government.
The opposition anticipates the debate will bring three changes that will benefit the country, according to chief opposition whip Sutin Klungsang.
First, it hopes the debate will force Prayut and the Cabinet to change their way of thinking and working. Second, it will spur Prayut to reshuffle the Cabinet and remove members who weaken the administration. Third, it will lead to even bigger changes.
“Ultimately, we expect a change of government and prime minister,” Sutin said.
“Ministers may sail through the censure debate, but if the public is dissatisfied, they will put pressure on the government, which could lead to change or to the government being toppled from outside Parliament.”
The opposition claims MPs from both sides of the House are dissatisfied with Nataphol’s performance. MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, spokesman for the opposition Move Forward Party, said MPs were unhappy with the education minister’s failure to address issues they asked him to tackle.
Push from the street
Prior to Saturday’s vote, the government will also come under pressure from street protests.
Anti-establishment protesters are planning to gather outside Parliament on Friday at 5pm and launch a parallel “censure debate”. The movement will also hold a large rally on Saturday at Sanam Luang to push for the release of four protest leaders jailed over lese majeste charges.
Yuthaporn said the opposition may save “highlights” for the last day of the debate, to synchronise with the protest outside Parliament and spark unrest.
“If there is an ‘unexpected’ incident that forces opposition MPs to join them [protesters], who knows what could happen?” he added.