“Prayut in Control … For Now” by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

2019/51, 6 June 2019

To no one’s surprise, junta leader and incumbent Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha won the contest for the premiership in the Thai National Assembly last Wednesday. He will head a new coalition government of 20 parties led by the Phalang Pracharat Party (PPP).

As widely anticipated, all but one of the 250 appointed senators hand-picked by the junta voted for Prayut.  Senate President Pornpetch Vichitcholamai, who assisted National Assembly President Chuan Leekpai by taking turns in chairing the long joint parliamentary session, abstained.  Chuan, who is concurrently the House Speaker, also abstained, though he is a member of the Democrat Party, a component of the pro-Prayut coalition. The two men’s abstentions were in line with the Thai political tradition of neutrality on the part of persons holding the top parliamentary posts.

Three of the 500 members of the House of Representatives did not participate. They were Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former leader of Democrat Party and former prime minister, who resigned from the House because he would not join the rest of his party’s MPs in voting for Prayut; Future Forward party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, suspended from parliament while his case of alleged failure to dispose of his shares in a media company is pending in the Constitutional Court; and another Future Forward MP, Joompita Chankachorn, who was ill.

Prayut received 500 votes, from 249 senators and 251 MPs. Thanathorn received 244 votes, in his bid for the premiership.  No senator voted for Thanathorn. The open roll call balloting took about two hours.

One small surprise did break the monotony of partisan voting. Siripong Angsakulkiat, an MP of the Bhumjai Thai Party, abstained, even though his party belongs to the pro-Prayut coalition. He was unhappy with his party’s leadership.

In supporting Thanathorn’s candidacy for the premiership, the seven parties in the anti-junta coalition, led by the Phuea Thai Party and Future Forward Party, mounted a valiant but futile challenge to Prayut.

In debate lasting about six hours, many of anti-junta MPs vehemently criticised Prayut for staging the coup of 22 May 2014 to topple the Phuea Thai-led coalition government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They cited incidents to show that Prayut lacked many of the necessary qualifications prescribed in the Constitution for those holding a top public office. Few of these MPs explained why Thanathorn would make a better premier, because they knew that Prayut will receive more than enough votes to remain in his top government post.

Thanathorn wanted to attend the meeting and to lay out his vision for the country, after he was nominated to compete with Prayut.  But Chuan decided against having the parliament expend time on what would have been for Thailand an unprecedented activity.

Prayut himself saw no need to appear in the parliament, of which he is not a member, to present his vision for Thailand. He had earlier told the media that his “performance” in heading the military government over the past five years clearly demonstrated both vision and his determination to move Thailand forward.

After winning the premiership, Prayut will now have a bigger say in the formation of his cabinet.  He wants his two “elder brothers” and fellow coup-makers General Prawit Wongsuwan and General Anupong Phaochinda to stay on as defence minister and interior minister, respectively.  He also wants two incumbent deputy premiers, Dr Somkit Jatusripitak and Dr Wisanu Krea-ngam, to continue in those positions and to be in charge of economic policy and legal affairs, respectively.

Prayut also insists on having the final say on all nominees for the remaining cabinet posts, particularly in the key economic ministries of finance, transport, commerce, and energy. His demand leaves little room for the PPP (with 116 MPs) in dealing with its two coalition partners, the Democrats (53 MPs) and Bhumjai Thai (51 MPs).  The former wants to control the agriculture, commerce, and education ministries, while the latter also wants the agriculture, in addition to public health and sports and tourism ministries.

The PPP also now faces a serious internal struggle among its numerous factions, each of which wants a share of the political spoils.  While a member of Bhumjai Thai rather than the PPP, one such faction leader, Siripong, has already demonstrated how to embarrass a party’s leadership by not toeing its line.

The pro-Prayut coalition holds only 255 MPs in the House, a mere 51 per cent. The rebellion or defection of just six disgruntled MPs will lead to defeat of government-sponsored bills or even to a no-confidence vote against Prayut. Senators have no role in a no-confidence debate in the House, and thus cannot help defend Prayut.

Prayut has never shown patience in dealing with dissent and criticism.  Nor is he in control of the PPP or of any of its major factions. He therefore has little time to learn to face the new political reality in Thailand.  Unruly MPs in his coalition will demand more and more in return for their continuing support of his premiership.

Prayut’s main bargaining power is his power to dissolve the House and to call a new general election.  However, should he fail too soon, he will not have any excuse to ask for yet another chance to return to the premiership.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Lead Researcher for Political and Security Affairs in the ASEAN Studies Centre and a member of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.