11 July 2024

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and nine other Cabinet members managed to sail through last week’s no-confidence vote — mostly with comfortable margins — while the opposition declared success in opening government wounds.

However, the vote results offered tell-tale signs about the state of Thai politics, its most powerful figures, and the aftermath of the censure debate.

Prawit confirmed as govt supremo

The voting left no doubt that Palang Pracharath Party leader Gen Prawit Wongsuwan is the most influential figure in the coalition government. The deputy PM again earned two more votes of confidence than PM Prayut, at 274 votes to 272. Last year’s censure debate saw Prawit win the most confidence votes, five more than Prayut – 277 versus 272.

Observers pointed out that those extra votes show that it is actually Prawit who is the most powerful figure, supporting and strengthening the Prayut government’s stability.

Thammanat powers back

If Prawit is the undisputed heavyweight of Thai politics, then Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompow could be the most influential flyweight.

Thammanat rebounded dramatically from the previous censure debate, where he came last in the confidence vote with 269. This time he shared second place with Prawit on 274 votes. Thammanat also received the fewest no-confidence votes at 199, indicating that some opposition MPs either abstained or even voted to support him.

Palang Pracharath disunity

The voting also offered more evidence of fierce power struggles within the core ruling Palang Pracharath Party.

The worst scorecard went to Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan, as expected. The minister received the fewest votes of confidence at 258 and the most no-confidence votes at 215. The result reflected the rift between the deputy leader of the ruling party and his party leader Prawit over candidates for the upcoming Bangkok governor election. Nataphol is backing his wife Taya – a former deputy Bangkok governor – while Prawit reportedly favours former police chief Chakthip Chaijinda.

Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin fared only slightly better than Nataphol, with 263 votes for and 212 against. The votes indicate an undercurrent of opposition to the minister, who has only been in the job for seven months. Suchart is a Palang Pracharath deputy leader who controls a faction of Central Region MPs. His labour portfolio has been targeted by certain fellow party members.

In another blow to Prawit’s push for stability, six MPs from the ruling party’s “Dao Reuk” faction defied the party line by abstaining from the vote on Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob of the coalition’s Bhumjaithai Party. Saksayam gained just 268 votes of confidence, after the Dao Reuk MPs complained he had failed to respond to allegations of irregularity in a mass transit mega-project.

Opposition believe they won people’s hearts while losing the censure vote

Opposition parties are satisfied with their performance during the four-day censure debate, despite losing the vote, because they believe they have won the hearts of many people. Opposition leader and Pheu Thai party leader Sompong Amornvivat pointed out that, although Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha received 272 votes of confidence, they were fewerthan he received in previous censure debates.

‘Cobras’ bite Future Forward

It was no surprise to see so-called “cobras” – rebel MPs – once again vote against their party resolution following the censure debate. This time, four MPs from the second largest opposition party, Move Forward, threw their support behind Bhumjaithai Party’s Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and Transport Minister Saksayam. The votes saw Anutin top the ranking of confidence votes with 275.

Rebels always have a good excuse for not following the party line. This time, one of the four “cobras”, Chiang Rai MP Ekkapob Pianpises, said he was impressed by Anutin after accepting his invitation to visit the northern province during the COVID-19 outbreak. Critics said this reflected the fact that personal connections and political patronage continue to play a large role in Thai politics, where some MPs still put their own interests before those of the voters they represent.

The rebellion could also signal the four MPs may defect to Bhumjaithai in the next election.

Democrat leadership shaken

Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit’s scorecard was less than impressive, with 268 votes of confidence against 207.

The coalition Democrat Party leader is facing both internal and external challenges. With his party popularity in decline after a catastrophic performance in the last general election, Jurin does not enjoy the same support as his predecessor, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Three Democrat MPs voted against the party line and even abstained from voting on their party leader.

Cabinet reshuffle?

The ministers who received fewest votes could be targeted in a future Cabinet reshuffle, but experts doubt a shake-up will come soon after the censure debate.

They believe the debate won’t lead to a change in the government, as Cabinet reshuffles are usually only sparked by conflicts or mutual interests among coalition parties.

Reshuffles rarely stem from information presented by the opposition in no-confidence debates, but instead result from power struggles among coalition parties, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.

“Right now, it seems like everything is under [Prayut’s] control. I don’t think there will be a reshuffle in the near future,” the political pundit said.

Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from the Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, reckoned the soonest we will see a reshuffle is July or August when the Prayut government marks two years in office. He said changing the Cabinet now would be untimely given the current political context.

He cited unresolved economic problems, the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, uncertainty over when vaccines will arrive in Thailand, and the challenge from anti-establishment protesters who returned to the street this month after taking a break in late December.

“Changing horses in midstream now would not be good for the government,” the analyst said.

Key factors in Prayut’s decisions on the future of his government include its popularity and the ongoing push for charter change, Yuthaporn added.

When his administration’s two-year anniversary arrives in July, Prayut may decide whether to shake up his Cabinet or even dissolve the House and call an election, he predicted.

“If the government’s popularity increases and constitutional changes give it an advantage [in the next general election], the PM may call for a House dissolution,” he said.

Parliament is in the process of amending the current Constitution to enable a charter-drafting assembly to be set up to write a new one. A new and more democratic charter is one of the three demands being made by the anti-establish movement.

“However, if the government’s popularity is falling, it may exploit the charter amendment process and keep the administration alive into its third year or even until its term ends,” Yuthaporn said.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk