Asia Pacific / Politics | FOCUS

Thai leader Prayut Chan-ocha consolidating power in fragmented political landscape

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is confident that a civilian, pro-military government he formed in the middle of this year after five years of junta rule can complete its four-year term.

But the former army chief and coup leader must deal with various veteran politicians in the 19 parties that form the coalition government while navigating an uncertain political landscape involving the second-largest opposition party as it faces the possibility of a court-ordered dissolution.

In the long-delayed March 24 election to restore civilian government, the Palang Pracharath Party, which chose Prayut as its prime ministerial candidate, came in second with 116 seats but managed to form the coalition government with 18 smaller parties.

The Pheu Thai Party, which won the largest number of seats at 136 but was unable to form a government under junta-drafted election rules that favored midsize parties, leads the opposition with six other parties, including the second-largest opposition party, Future Forward, led by the tycoon-turned-politician Thanathorn Jungroongruangkit.

Having secured majority support in parliament and with the help of junta-appointed senators who serve for five years, Prayut is looking to extend his rule beyond the current term through 2023.

“Do not get bored of me — I will stay for quite a long time,” he said in recent remarks.

The country’s 250 wholly appointed senators are empowered by the 2017 constitution to vote in choosing the prime minister, along with 500 elected members of the House of Representatives.

One of the key challenges he faces is the slim margin the ruling coalition holds over the opposition in the lower house. This means trouble for the government when trying to pass legislation, including budgets.

Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a visiting fellow at a think tank in Singapore, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, predicts a resurgence of money politics in which money is paid to win “defectors” from the opposition when the government tries to legislate important laws or agendas. “Behind the scene lobbying on the part of two rival camps in the House to recruit defectors will intensify. … Old-style, cutthroat money politics is likely to return and retard political development in Thailand,” he wrote in a report.

Some observers say Prayut actually has no margin problem now that the coalition has gained more seats in by-elections.

“The political challenge for the government is to handle the coalition parties well. … Bargaining on interests and positions is still ongoing,” said Nattaya Chetchotiros, The Bangkok Post’s assistant news editor in charge of politics.

The government also faces sporadic anti-government protests, most notably one organized in mid-December by Thanathorn, whose Future Forward faces the possibility of a dissolution order at the Constitutional Court. Thanathorn lost his seat in parliament in November for holding shares in a media organization during an election campaign, a violation of election-related law.

The businessman’s pro-democracy party is also at risk of dissolution over the money he lent it during the election campaign, allegedly in violation of a law. The party separately faces the allegation that it acted against constitutional monarchy, for which it could also be disbanded.

If the party is dissolved, 79 remaining party members in the lower house risk losing their seats unless they find a party to join within 60 days.

Thanathorn held a “flash mob”-style political rally in Bangkok on Dec. 14 to call attention to what his supporters see as unfair treatment of his party and himself by the pro-military government. Several thousand people reportedly gathered for the event.

Despite the nascent anti-government protests, Nattaya believes it unlikely that Hong Kong-like demonstrations will play out in Thailand. She says that even if protesters rally, they will do so only to register their unhappiness with the government, not because of their outright resistance to it.

“Some people expect the rallies to deteriorate like Hong Kong, but I don’t think so. … Prolonged demonstrations require more people and budget,” she said, adding that rallies like the one by Thanathorn will not threaten the government even if Future Forward is disbanded.

Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, predicts that only severe economic problems could cause an existential crisis for the government during the next four years.

The academic proposes that the government implement measures that will help elevate people’s living standards and help those in the agricultural sector.

If effectively executed, such economic measures will help the government run smoothly and stay in power as long as it expects to, according to Yutthaporn.

Regarding anti-government groups, including one composed of Thanathorn supporters, the scholar says they lack the potential to topple the government. Such groups are widely seen as not well organized and lacking clear political goals.

“I believe a large number of Thais want to maintain a peaceful situation and let political issues resolved through a parliamentary process,” Yutthaporn said.

Meanwhile, Thai businesses are all about stability in politics and calling on all sides to remain peaceful and avoid staging political rallies. They are concerned about political chaos returning to Thailand, affecting the country’s economic growth and undermining confidence among foreign investors and tourists.

“We want stable politics. … We would like to call for all involved to join hands together to promote the growth,” said Supant Mong-kolsuthree, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries. “Any political activity should be done in the parliament. I hope the government can control the situation.”

Thailand’s economy is projected to grow 3.2 percent in 2020, up from 3.0 percent projected for 2019, having grown 4.1 percent in 2018, according to an Asian Development Bank outlook report released in September.

Thanavath Phonvichai, director of the Center for Economic and Business Forecasting, said the strong growth is expected due to more spending and consumption, greater exports and relieving trade tension between the United States and China.

Wichayayuth Boonchit, deputy secretary-general of the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council, said the Thai economy should see momentum from such factors as the recovery of tourism and a government stimulus package aimed at more investment and private-sector sending.

However, private enterprises have started to fret about rising political tension in Thailand that could affect the country’s economic growth. They are calling on the government to ensure stability in politics and stabilize exchange rates while continuing to tackle the air pollution problem, which could harm tourism.

Coronavirus banner