Palang Pracharat: Lightning rod or effective tool?
On the one hand, the newly–formed Palang Pracharat Party can be military–backed Prime Minister Prayut Chan–o–cha’s formidable weapon going into his most politically critical period since the 2014 coup. On the other hand, the party’s existence can expand his already–large enemy base, make him very unpopular among many sections of voters, and thus backfire badly on him.
News headlines this week revolved around mainstream politicians’ harsh criticisms against Palang Pracharat, which they said would help Prayut virtually steal next year’s general election. They said the fact that some current members of the Prayut Cabinet are among the top ranks of the self–proclaimed “conservative” party has made his intentions so obvious.
The critics claimed the upcoming election looked unfair already, with key members of an unelected government doubling as people tasked with helping a political party win the poll. The criticisms also give Prayut some clues on what he is about to face when election campaigns get more intense.
Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana, Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong, Science Minister Suvit Maesincee and PM’s Office Minister Kobsak Pootrakool are among Palang Pracharat’s key troops. They will support Prayut’s return to power alongside several big names in mainstream politics who critics say have been “sucked” into the new camp.
The party will be helped greatly by a new constitutional rule, which states that any vote cast for any election candidate will not be lost, but instead will be reassembled as “national votes” that will be used to calculate how many House seats each party gets. Under the new system, if one party is supposed to get 190 seats according to the calculation but already wins 180 seats from constituency races, it will get an additional 10 seats. If one party fails to win a single constituency seat but gathers a considerable number of votes nationwide, it can have a sound number of MPs.
The “sucked” politicians and this new rule are giving Palang Pracharat big benefits. Biggest criticism, of course, has come from the Pheu Thai Party, which expects to win the biggest number of constituency seats but may see a sizable number of seats going to parties that are likely to lose to it narrowly in constituency battles.
The issue regarding the four ministers has added to Pheu Thai’s concern. Strategically speaking, however, their presence in Palang Pracharat may not be as significant as the defections of high–profile Pheu Thai members to the new party. The four ministers can trigger a political bomb, nonetheless.
Charges of conflicts of interests have abounded, and they can further undermine Prayut’s political ratings, which have been under pressure although he still leads opinion polls on the next prime minister.
Palang Pracharat is certain to give Prayut a few seats, that may come in handy when Parliament decides who is the next prime minister.However, it can also galvanise pro–Pheu Thai voters and push the Democrats further away from him.
Current Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has already been vocal of “unfair” rules mainstream politicians face going into the election.
The four ministers quitting their posts before the election has not been ruled out despite an assurance from Prayut that they can stay put and not bow to mounting pressure to resign. But political problems regarding Palang Pracharat are unlikely to go away. Whether the party can be Prayut’s effective weapon, or whether it will rather make him a sitting duck, the answer will come within weeks. – By ThaiPBS World’s Political Desk