6 June 2024

Whether Prawit Wongsuwan carries the ambition to become the new head of the biggest coalition party is not as clear as whether he owned the expensive watches that sparked a major political uproar last year. The two issues, however, are becoming increasingly intertwined and can combine to drastically change Thailand’s political course.

 

News reports say he has accepted an invitation to become the Palang Pracharath Party’s new leader, amid a power struggle that threatens to break it apart. The ultimate move he makes will be momentous, because it won’t only determine his future, but also the government’s, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s and Thailand’s as a whole.

 

The advantages of his rise to the party’s leadership are obvious. To the warring Palang Pracharath factions, he is senior and well-respected enough to restore peace, whether it will be temporary or not. In other words, both sides in the power play would accept him as a face-saving solution to say the least. Meanwhile, a Cabinet change may not be as drastic as in the event of a total takeover by the mutinous camp, as Prawit is close to the prime minister and can calm things down among the Palang Pracharath dissidents.

 

The pros are more tangible than the cons, but the latter can still outweigh the former. To start with, Prawit is still regarded as a military man, and a rise to the helm of the biggest government party will amplify the negative message the opposition bloc is trying to send out to the whole world about men in uniforms’ continued intervention in Thai politics.

 

Having a former coup leader as prime minister in a democracy is anything but good advertisement. Such “negativity” will be doubled if the coalition core is also led by another top soldier. The combination can be unpopular, affect future court cases and undermine anti-graft rulings, increasing the impression that one side in Thailand has been subjected to political persecution.

 

If that is dismissed under a “Who cares what foreigners think?” argument, Prawit’s ballooning political clout will have a big domestic impact as well. He was not a popular man before the luxury watches controversy cemented a highly-questionable public image. Palang Pracharath supporters do not like “the other side”, obviously, but they do not consider Prawit as the party’s asset, either.

 

And a lot of Palang Pracharath supporters are in Bangkok, where much ground has already been conceded to Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s party and sentiment against Prawit is strong. Simply put, while Prawit might be able to stop Palang Pracharath’s infighting, his bigger role could tilt future elections in favour of the government’s enemies.

 

As for Prayut, Prawit’s rise could be deemed as a threat. Being the leader of the biggest government party automatically put the deputy prime minister in a position to challenge the top boss for the chief executive post. Prawit can also give Prayut a different headache, if his new role severely undercut the coalition’s approval ratings.

 

So far, Prawit’s public stand on the leadership has been lukewarm or nonchalant. But Prayut has been seen glimpses of what would happen if Prawit came under a more glaring political spotlight. A few days ago, a celebrity has learned the hard way why he should steer clear of politics, and probably Prawit in particular.

Sean Buranahiran, a well-known YouTuber, rapper and online influencer, has come under fire after expressing his admiration for Prawit after joining him in a reforestation event in Chiang Mai. After describing Prawit as a “very nice guy” who looked nothing like what some media outlets described him, Sean triggered an uproar among various followers, who deserted his online accounts in droves.

Prawit, reacting to the Sean incident, said he met a lot of people at the reforestation event, and that if anyone thought of him highly, it was a personal opinion. The problem is that, although those who dislike him are also entitled to do so, their number could be big enough to cause a major political tremor.

 

By Tulsathit Taptim