11 July 2024

Politicians and observers are seeking a potential “substitute prime minister” in case PM Prayut Chan-o-cha runs into a “political accident”.

Talk of an acting PM was triggered this past week after a slip of the tongue by Deputy Premier Prawit Wongsuwan, who also heads the ruling Palang Pracharath Party.

Prawit said last Tuesday that “there may be a substitute prime minister” if Prayut is unable to remain in his position. However, PM Prayut said he had never heard of a stand-in for his post, while his supporters stressed he is the ruling party’s only PM candidate.

Prawit’s former subordinates, who are now in the Thai Economic Party, recently proposed the deputy PM as “the best candidate” for the prime minister’s post in case of a “political mishap”.

Threats to Prayut’s status

Two potential pitfalls could cut short Prayut’s term as PM.

The first is a majority vote against him in the upcoming House censure debate. The opposition plans to hold a no-confidence debate against the government “as quickly as possible” after Parliament reconvenes on May 22.

Opposition leader Chonlanan Srikaew wants the debate held in late June but says it will likely be postponed until July for Parliament to finish deliberating the Budget Bill and changes to the MP Election Act and Political Parties Act.

Although the chance is small, PM Prayut risks being voted out in the censure debate as his coalition’s majority has thinned after more than a dozen Palang Pracharath MPs left to set up the Setthakit Thai (Thai Economic) party. Slighted MPs from small coalition parties may also vote against Prayut.

Thai Economic and the small parties are reportedly unhappy with the PM’s repeated refusal to reshuffle the Cabinet, which has halted their bids for ministerial seats.

Thai Economic’s secretary-general Thammanat Prompow is rumored to have demanded two Cabinet seats in exchange for supporting the government.

Thammanat and other MPs in his faction were expelled from Palang Pracharath in January after the influential powerbroker reportedly tried to oust Prayut during the censure debate last September.

The PM is likely to face a tough challenge at the upcoming debate. Thammanat and his new party are expected to lobby furiously ahead of the no-confidence vote.

However, Prayut’s faction will go all out to counter any attempt by Thammanat and his team to get the PM removed.

Need for a substitute PM

Some observers say the idea of a substitute PM was raised as a threat and a bargaining tool, reminding Prayut that his position is precarious.

Ties between generals Prayut, Prawit, and Anupong Paochinda — the three powerful brothers in arms — have soured since the no-confidence vote last year when Prayut’s power was challenged by Thammanat, who is close to Prawit.

However, Stithorn Thananithichot, director of Innovation for Democracy at the King Prajadhipok’s Institute (KPI), sees only a slim chance of a substitute PM being needed.

“If Prayut is replaced as prime minister, his entire team would be removed. So they [Prayut and his team] will do anything they can to prevent that from happening,” said the analyst.

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When does PM’s term end?

The second potential “political accident” for PM Prayut – this one more likely to occur – is if the Constitutional Court rules that his eight-year tenure ends on August 24 this year. The opposition reportedly plans to seek a court verdict on the contentious matter.

The Constitution states that “The prime minister shall not hold office for more than eight years in total, whether or not holding consecutive terms.”

Prayut first became prime minister on August 24, 2014, three months after leading a military coup on May 22, so 2022 would be his eighth year in office.

However, a key legal question hangs over when the eight-year term started — when Prayut became PM after the coup in 2014, when the current Constitution came into force on April 6, 2017, or when Prayut became PM by royal command on June 9, 2019, after the general election in March that year.

The five ‘legal substitutes’

If the court rules that Prayut must vacate his post by August, his first deputy Prawit will replace him as caretaker, according to Deputy Premier Wissanu Krea-ngam, the government’s legal guru.

Then, the law dictates that Parliament President Chuan Leekpai must call a parliamentary meeting to select a new prime minister from the five existing candidates nominated by political parties before the 2019 election. They are Abhisit Vejjajiva of the coalition Democrat Party, Anutin Charnvirakul of the coalition Bhumjaithai Party, and Chaikasem Nitisiri, Chadchart Sittipunt, and Sudarat Keyuraphan of the opposition Pheu Thai Party.

Sudarat and Chadchart are still considered PM candidates despite having left Pheu Thai, according to Wissanu, who described the five candidates as the “actual substitutes according to the law”.

A person outside the list of nominated candidates can be named prime minister only if a joint meeting of the Lower House and Senate agrees to waive the existing list. That is the only way Prawit could extend his PM’s status beyond a caretaker role, observers say.

However, to achieve this he would need strong support from both Houses. A majority of both Houses is required to support a joint petition requesting exemption of the political parties’ nominations. Then, support from at least two-thirds of Parliament would be required to approve the exemption, after which someone outside the original candidate list could be nominated to be voted in as PM.

Why ‘substitute’ idea was floated

The plan for a substitute PM is being hatched just in case of a political accident, said KPI’s Stithorn.

First, it would solve any problem arising from the no-confidence debate, which is expected to take place sometime between late June and early July, he said.

“If Prayut fails to pass the no-confidence vote, he will be ousted and Parliament will need to vote for a new PM,” said the analyst. The law does not prevent Prayut from returning as prime minister, but that would not be a graceful choice, the analyst added.

Second, if Prayut decides to call an early election and opts to be the PM candidate of another party that fails to get elected, Prawit could emerge as his substitute PM, nominated by Palang Pracharath.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk