Thai Opposition: Self-inflicted Wounds

Recent fighting among opposition parties, and within them, has effectively granted the Prayut coalition government a longer lease of life

Students gather at a pro-democracy rally against military rule and the Constitutional Court’s ruling to dissolve the Future Forward Party, at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok on February 24, 2020. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA, AFP)

Termsak Chalermpalanupap

12 March 2020

The long-awaited no-confidence debate against Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha and five of his ministers ended in a disappointing anti-climax last month. The opposition staged a walkout after it ran out of its allocated speaking time. In the end, the opposition failed to present arguments to demonstrate that Prayut or any of the five ministers was unfit to remain in their posts.

The dramatic gesture could not cover up growing weakness and distrust among the key opposition parties. It is now the opposition – and not the Prayut coalition – that needs to regain public confidence.

Even before the no-confidence debate began on 24 February, the opposition had already suffered setbacks. The month of January saw the defection of five members of parliament (MPs) from the New Economics Party to vote in support of the government’s Budget bill. On the eve of the debate, the Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party (FFP), the second-largest opposition party in the House of Representatives. By banning the party’s leadership – comprising 16 members, of which 11 were MPs – from politics for a decade, the court dented the opposition’s footprint in the lower house. A few days later, nine more FFP MPs defected to the pro-government Bhumjai Thai Party. As a result, Prayut’s formerly razor-thin majority is now looking steadier, with at least 273 seats in the 489-member House.

At the same time, bitter infighting between the Phuea Thai Party’s two Bangkok-based veterans, Mrs. Sudarat Keyuraphan and Police Captain Chalerm Yubamrung, has further weakened the Thai opposition’s largest party. Chalerm prevailed and emerged as the chief strategist for Phuea Thai in the no-confidence debate. That said, the party did not qualify for any party-list seats after the March 2019 elections. Neither Chalerm nor Sudarat are members of parliament.

It is now the opposition – and not the Prayut coalition – that needs to regain public confidence

Further, Chalerm was determined to focus in the debate on Prayut alone. His reasoning was strategic — if Prayut could be fatally discredited and knocked out, the whole cabinet would have to resign. But the strategy aroused suspicions that Chalerm had cut a secret “deal” with Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan – the chief strategist of the Palang Pracharat Party — to get Prawit and Interior Minister General Anupong Paochinda off the hook during the 24-27 February debate.  

The first three days of the debate saw attacks focused on Prayut, who responded both in person and via ministers who provided factual rebuttals to allegations from opposition speakers. By the evening of the last day of debate, the opposition had run out of time. Four members of the dissolved FFP, some of whom had set their sights on Prawit and Anupong, were unable to take the floor.

Phuea Thai then tried to reassert its leadership and to regain credibility by leading a walk-out of all opposition MPs. The last-ditch attempt, however, led to the loss of two hours of speaking time allocated to the opposition.

Irate members of the dissolved FFP publicly accused Phuea Thai of short-changing other opposition parties by wasting too much time on Prayut and leaving Prawit and Anupong unscathed. Representatives of the defunct FFP refused to join other opposition parties at the press conference at which Phuea Thai announced plans to boycott the vote on the no-confidence motion. In defiance of the plan, most of the MPs of the dissolved FFP showed up to cast their no-confidence votes against Prayut and the five ministers, but to no avail. In the end, Prayut and the ministers strolled to an easy victory.

Following this debacle, the Phuea Thai Party must prove that it is still fit and capable of leading the opposition. Public confidence in the party – Thailand’s largest – is diminishing. It urgently needs a leadership overhaul, failing which it will flounder. In fact, one well-known Phuea Thai veteran in the northern province of Phayao, Laddawan Wongsriwong, has just resigned and formed a new party, the Samoephak or Equality Party.

Meanwhile, 55 sitting MPs from the dissolved FFP are going to consolidate under the Move Forward Party in order to continue the struggle against the Prayut government and to oppose military intervention in Thai politics, albeit in a less confrontational manner. However, some of these “bees from a broken hive” – as the Thai media are now wont to label them — might defect to parties in the ruling coalition because they cannot resist the promise of a more salubrious political career in the government camp.

In short, the fratricide in the Thai opposition has given Prayut and his coalition partners fresh confidence, such that they can now aspire to hold on to power longer than sceptics had predicted. Thanks to the opposition’s self-inflicted wounds, the Prayut administration now looks set to last another year in power, if not more.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary – 2020/28

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