Prayut govt tipped to escape – but wounded – from this week’s censure debate

(Photo by Handout / ROYAL THAI GOVERNMENT / AFP)

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is bracing for his third censure debate this week when he and five other Cabinet members will be grilled by opposition politicians.

The attacks will center on the government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating economic fallout, according to opposition leader Sompong Amornvivat of the Pheu Thai Party.

The four-day debate is scheduled to start on Tuesday (August 31), with voting on Saturday (September 4).

As well as Prayut, the opposition is also targeting five key ministers from the three major coalition parties. They are Deputy Premier and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob from the Bhumjaithai Party, Labour Minister Suchat Chomklin and Digital Economy and Society Minister Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn from Palang Pracharath, and Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Chalermchai Sri-on from the Democrat Party.

No serious impacts

The opposition is expected to pull no punches in its attacks this time – unlike in two previous censure debates which were marred by allegations of behind-the-scenes deals.

However, observers say the grilling is unlikely to bring any serious change, such as a Cabinet reshuffle or the collapse of Prayut’s administration.

The two previous no-confidence debates against Prayut and his Cabinet colleagues – one last February and the other in February 2020 – were overshadowed by rumors of backroom deals between government and opposition politicians to spare some Cabinet members and omit certain issues.

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University, said he expected all six targeted ministers to survive the censure debate although with different levels of supporting votes.

He also forecasts that Prayut would not reshuffle his Cabinet after the debate but instead wait until late this year. He added that the government is currently busy strengthening its power by reshuffling senior permanent officials, effective from October 1.

“But the government will have to clear all [the opposition’s] allegations in the aftermath [of the debate], otherwise public confidence will be affected,” the analyst said.

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Hard-hitting allegations

The strongly-worded censure motion, submitted to House Speaker Chuan Leekpai on August 16, accuses Prayut of malfeasance in the procurement and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as “lacking the ability to lead the country in times of normalcy and during the pandemic”.

The opposition also accuses PM Prayut of profiting from the country’s COVID-19 deaths and being “power hungry”.

Anutin is held responsible for the slow procurement and rollout of vaccines while being accused of “severe mismanagement” of the Public Health Ministry.

Saksayam is accused of “severe ethical violations”, abusing his power for personal gains, and “dissolute” acts that led to a COVID-19 outbreak.

Suchat is blamed for an influx of illegal migrant laborers that allegedly led to an outbreak, as well as high unemployment among new graduates.

Chaiwut is accused of using state media to “distort facts” and causing social division for political advantage.

Chalermchai is accused of mismanaging the country’s agricultural system, making personal gains from projects under his control, and misappropriating national resources for his cohorts.

Seeking Prayut’s ouster

Pheu Thai has also launched an online campaign on the Change.org website, asking members of the public to “vote for Prayut’s ouster”.

The campaign, titled “Prayut, Get Out”, urges Thai citizens to join forces and reject Gen Prayut as prime minister due to his “lack of leadership, repeated failures in running the country, and negligence that led to the people’s severe suffering”.

Pheu Thai MP Yuttapong Charasathien said on Sunday that his party has “serious information that can bring down the government” as the prime minister “will be unable to stay on” after the censure debate.

Meanwhile, red-shirt leader and government critic Nattawut Saikuar on Sunday urged Thai citizens to join a “huge rally” in Bangkok to be held between September 2 and 4.

Anti-government groups led by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration also plan to hold a “major rally” aimed at “neutering the Prayut regime” on September 3, the last day of debate.

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Points of interest

Rangsit University’s Wanwichit listed highlights to look out for during the censure debate.

On the government’s side, he expects three prime targets — Prayut, Anutin, and Chaiwut — to “get most bruised”, judging from the opposition’s accusations against them.

Chaiwut – who was only appointed to the Cabinet in March – could suffer severely, as he has a strong character and a tendency to argue back and forth with his accusers, the analyst said.

The government will be at a disadvantage as it is currently on the defensive while the opposition appears to have the upper hand, he added.

Wanwichit said Prayut’s “single-command” style of management has proved a failure in tackling COVID-19. Moreover, the premier’s earlier promise to reopen the country in mid-October offered hope to the public but has heightened pressure on the government amid growing concern the plan will fail.

Concern over unity

As for the opposition, the analyst expects them to take the debate seriously but admits their lack of unity is a point of concern.

The two leading opposition parties, Pheu Thai and Move Forward, recently fell out over Constitutional amendment of the electoral system. Pheu Thai sought revival of the two-ballot system used under the two previous charters, while Move Forward wanted a mixed-member proportional representation system.

The two parties also clashed after Pheu Thai MPs voted with the coalition to transfer over Bt16 billion trimmed from the 2022 Budget Bill into the government’s “central budget” for tackling COVID-19.

Move Forward is also dismayed at Pheu Thai’s decision not to censure Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who is Palang Pracharath leader, and the party’s secretary-general Thammanat Prompow in the debate. Speculation has been rife that Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharath are planning to form a new government together.

“Their [Pheu Thai and Move Forward] unity is just temporary. They know well how to handle public sentiment when people are suffering amid the outbreak,” Wanwichit commented with an air of confidence.

Judging from past performances, the analyst reckons opposition parties are well prepared to grill the targeted ministers. He pointed to the opposition’s success in pressuring the government to shift the budget for a submarine purchase to COVID-19 relief.

However, the opposition has spared economy-related ministers, meaning the public may not get “maximum benefit” from the censure debate, he said.

“The opposition is overly focused on playing political games. They are targeting key playmakers for their own political benefits, when the public expects scrutiny of the government’s failures to help people recover from the economic downturn,” said the academic.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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