11 July 2024

When straightforward replies should have been preferred but are replaced instead with elusiveness, it’s safe to assume that something is amiss. Over the past few days, both Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and one of his most powerful backers, Prawit Wongsuwan, were vague about their relationship, which will be under intense public scrutiny going into the next general election.

Their ambiguity is one of the developments in November that indicated both men may be drifting apart. Last month, the two men, on separate occasions, avoided giving a simple “Yes” or “No” to the question of whether Prayut would join the newly-formed Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party, a scenario that could affect Prawit’s Palang Pracharath Party when it comes to nominating the next prime minister.

Prayut, when asked if he would become a Ruam Thai Sang Chart member, said he was aware of the speculation and was “thinking about it”. Prawit was even more elusive. Asked who Palang Pracharath will support as the next prime minister, Prawit said his party’s board has not formally decided. Asked if it would be him, he said he was the party leader who wouldn’t go against party members’ wishes. Asked if it would be Prayut again, he said: “Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” On whether Prayut would join and lead Ruam Thai Sang Chart before the next election, he said: “It seems this question is for him, not me. For us, there’s no problem.”

Also last month, at a Palang Pracharath gathering, its politicians whispered among themselves uncertainties facing their party, and unconfirmed reports said some outstanding election candidates were even asked to write down on the paper their commitment to the party. This was taking place amid defections or rumoured plans to leave by certain MPs whereas Ruam Thai Sang Chart is recruiting.

Curiously, an opinion poll came out in November confirming Prayut as the most popular Cabinet figure while Deputy Prime Minister Prawit was even below Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul (Bhumjaithai) and Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit (Democrat) in the popularity ranking. Additionally, a well-known activist and media academic, Seri Wongmontha, has pointed out a few days ago what many have suspected _ Ruam Thai Sang Chart will be an influential player from now on despite its size. In effect, Seri was saying it’s true that Ruam Thai Sang Chart is still small, but don’t underestimate it.

It’s not just an opinion poll, though. Palang Pracharath, which did so well in Bangkok and many other parts of the country in the last general election, has been suffering voters’ snubs time and time again this year. Ballots cast in Bangkok’s Laksi and Chatuchak districts early this year made Palang Pracharath the biggest loser.

That humiliation followed election losses in Chumphon and Songkhla and things were about to get worse for the ruling party at the Bangkok gunernatorial and City Assembly elections. While anti-Prayut narratives blamed Prayut for Palang Pracharath’s decline, the prime minister’s loyal supporters insisted that the party’s crushing losses were due to its problems with the prime minister.

Palang Pracharath’s problem is complicated. It’s difficult to know for certainty if Prayut is unpopular across the political divide and is bringing the party down, or if he still has a sizeable fan base and its voters have been snubbing the party because it does not treat him well. Adding to the trouble are Prayut’s issues with former Palang Pracharath strongman Thammanat Prompao who is still apparently playing pro-Prawit politics despite having left the ruling party.

Also, Prawit may have become increasingly influenced by the notion that, as the leader of a main political party, he must assert himself as its key prime ministerial candidate instead of allowing Prayut to reap what the party had sowed.

Again, it’s hard to tell if Palang Pracharath still needs Prayut as its selling point. If the party was being abandoned by pro-Prayut voters in recent elections, poorer ties could just be the last nail in the party’s coffin in the next poll. Prayut, meanwhile, may not need Palang Pracharath as much but he will have to remember that without former military “comrades” like Prawit, he will surround himself with fickle politicians and can easily become an odd man out. (If he chooses to go on, that is.)

There are a few major scenarios. The first one has Prayut going to Ruam Thai Sang Chart and Palang Pracharath decides to have Prawit as their number one prime ministerial candidate. In the second one, both Ruam Thai Sang Chart and Palang Pracharath back Prayut no matter where he is. Last but not least, Prayut says he has had it and leaves the center stage, setting Prawit free in the process.

Which scenario will materialise depends on the outcomes of both men’s soul-searching. As we can see, Prayut will be disengaged from politics in one of the scenarios, whereas Prawit will remain the star and have troubles more or less in all of them.

By Tulsathit Taptim