Palang Pracharath gives PM old-politics dilemma

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It’s easier for three poor people to share one bowl of soup than for three rich people to share Bt50 million. This can very well be applied to “Three Friends”, the group of strange allies who came together with one common goal but are in apparent danger of breaking up over spoils of their success.

It’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s duty to change the extremely-unhealthy political trend. And it’s not just Bt50 million for the “Three Friends” group in Palang Pracharath. A power struggle threatening to tear the camp apart has to do with the Cabinet “cake” which determines who supervises what in a massive relief programme for post-COVID-19 Thailand.

When the “Three Friends” (Sammitr) first came to the limelight, its goal was to weaken Thaksin Shinawatra’s virtual stranglehold on Thai politics. Many group members had worked for the former prime minister but, after his self-imposed exile, wanted, among other things, to defy a saying that anyone having a Pheu Thai banner would get elected in the constituencies dominated by the party. They helped the newly-formed Palang Pracharath Party win political control after last year’s general election, following a very tight race that could have gone Thaksin’s way.

Now, the “friends” has forgotten the bowl of soup, so to speak. Signs of trouble first came when Prayut formed his first post-election Cabinet, but, according to some analysts, the Bt1 trillion relief plans served as a detonator and everything has been blown out of the water. Mass resignations from the Palang Pracharath executive board seriously put the key ministerial positions overseeing finance and energy in doubt. No matter how Prayut has tried to downplay the Palang Pracharath turmoil’s effects on his Cabinet line-up, nobody believes him.

He is up against the bad but deep-rooted tradition of giving key Cabinet positions to leaders and those serving as secretary-general of government coalition parties. It does not matter how many more qualified people are out there. Major Cabinet positions have to go to the high-ranking executives, and the possibility of Palang Pracharath having new leaders can give Prayut another acid test.

He failed a similar test when he formed his first Cabinet, having to succumb to horse-trading that had plagued Thai democracy for decades and resulted in highly-questionable figures in governments. While talks about “political reform” in Thailand have always focused on something else, this biggest problem of Thai-style democracy has never been truly addressed.

Will Palang Pracharath get new leadership? So far, it remains wide open. Three Friends has apparently split into two rival camps. Without really describing the real qualities of the two sides, one of them is called “Hawkish” and the other the “Strategist.” The “Hawkish” side is primarily Industry Minister Suriya Juangroongruangkit and Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin, both of whom wanting Prawit Wongsuwan, the defence minister and deputy prime minister as the new leader. The “Strategists” are Somkid Jatusripitak (deputy prime minister), Uttama Savanayana (finance minister) and Sontirat Sontijirawong (energy minister). Uttama and Sontirat are former party leader and secretary-general respectively.

The Hawkish has won the first round by making the majority of the Palang Pracharath board resign, forcing an imminent election of a new board. But what happens next?

For the new board, there are four possible scenarios. The first one has the Hawkish take over the party leadership while the Strategist get the party secretary-general post. The second scenario is vice versa. These two “compromise” scenarios will likely allow Palang Pracharat to go on.

The third scenario has the Hawkish completely take over the new executive board. The fourth one has the Strategist maintain its dominance in the new board. These two scenarios could break the ruling party apart.

A lot of analysts doubt a full-scale revolt will occur if the Hawkish is fended off. After all, “lesser” Cabinet posts are better than no Cabinet post at all, and nobody wants to be in the opposition or lose MP status at the moment.

But if the Hawkish prevails, Prayut will have to make a key decision that can be tantamount to telling Thais whether hopes of truly reforming Thai politics are real or just pipe dreams.

 

By Tulsathit Taptim

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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