By Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who has been in power since leading a military coup in 2014 but has been on shaky ground lately, announced Friday that he was quitting the Palang Pracharath Party to join another party to maintain his leadership.
Prayuth, 68, switched to the new United Thai Nation Party after PPP said it would nominate someone else as its prime minister candidate for the 2023 general election.
“Today, the United Thai Nation Party suggested that they support me as a prime minister during the next election,” he said. “I decided to join because I think I have to carry on with many things I have built in the past few years.”
“In the past, I received support from the Palang Pracharath Party, but it has decided to nominate a different leader for the next prime minister,” Prayuth told reporters at Government House in Bangkok.
The United Thai Nation Party, which is led by Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, confirmed support for Prayuth, adding that MPs from other parties are expected to join as well.
Since the March 2019 general election, the former junta chief has seen his grip on power slip. He has survived four no-confidence votes in parliament since 2020, with the most recent one happening this past July.
Palang Pracharath’s nominee is expected to be Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, the most senior figure in the “3P” brother-in-arms throughout Prayuth’s military career. The third P is Anupong Paochinda, another retired general who serves as interior minister.
Earlier this year, Palang Pracharath suffered from internal conflict when Thammanat Prompao, who served as the party’s secretary-general, complained about Prayuth’s performance. In July, Thammanat, who was booted from the party and is apparently close to Prawit, joined by 15 other MPs announced he would not vote for Prayuth.
More recently, 13 Palang Pracharath members left and joined the Bhumjaithai party this month, local media reported, adding they had resigned from the House. In all, 34 politicians had resigned from other parties to join Bhumjaithai to strengthen Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul’s campaign for prime minister.
In May 2014, while serving as army chief, Prayuth led a successful coup against the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, eventually leading to him becoming prime minister. Following the March 2019 general election, MPs elected him to the post.
In September, the Constitutional Court ruled that Prayuth could serve as prime minister until April 5, 2025, under the 2017 Constitution’s eight-year term limit.
Thailand is scheduled to hold a general election sometime around May 2023.
The upcoming polls will feature slight changes from the 2019 vote.
The number of representatives to be directly elected will increase from 350 to 400, while the number of members to be appointed through proportional representation by party choice votes will fall from 150 to 100. The change likely will favor the major parties Palang Pracharath and opposition Pheu Thai Party, analysts said.
What has not changed is that 250 senators – all hand-picked by Prayuth – will participate in the vote with the lower house to elect the prime minister, analysts said. The winning candidate would need at least 376 votes – one more than half of the 750 voters.
No hard feelings
The 3Ps fought hand-in-hand against communist threats and took part in the 2006 coup against then-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in exile abroad, and the 2014 coup against Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck.
“I’ve told him [Prawit Wongsuwan] about my needs and told him of my decision. There is no trouble, no conflict. I am not parting. We still talk to each other,” Prayuth told reporters. “Our military ties are deep.”
Titipol Phakdeewanich, the dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, said he did not see Prayuth’s departure from PPP as significant because the two parties are in the pro-military bloc.
“While it is a surprise for Prayuth to become United Thai Nation Party’s candidate, his announcement should not cause any rifts with Palang Pracharath Party,” Titipol told BenarNews Friday. “They both are the products of a military coup.”
Asked if he would join efforts to form a new coalition government after the election, Prayuth said: “It’s up to the election results. We don’t know who the people will vote for – there will be match making then.”
Prayuth is also under public pressure to resign as prime minister.
Since July 2020, protesters in Bangkok have called for him to step down, for the constitution to be rewritten and for the monarchy to be reformed. They cited ongoing suppression of democracy, economic woes and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in calling for his ouster.
Recent opinion polls also show Prayuth losing support.
In early December, a NIDA (National Institute of Development Administration) Poll showed that 32.44 percent of 1,310 respondents expected the opposition Pheu Thai Party to emerge as the winner in its effort form a new government.
Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest daughter, meanwhile has been promoted within the Pheu Thai Party to build on the family name that has influenced national politics since 2001.
It is unclear if she or Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew would be the party’s choice for prime minister should it win the most seats.
Pheu Thai’s fellow opposition party, the Move Forward Party, followed suit at 11%, while Palang Pracharath Party came in third place at 10.76%, and the United Thai Nation Party was at 5.73%.
A Super Poll Research Office survey in mid-December showed Anutin as the top “economic savior” for people, even though his Bhumjaithai drew just 4.96% support in the NIDA Poll.
Anutin, whose popularity is linked to the controversial partial decriminalization of marijuana, was supported by 61.4% of 1,190 Super Poll respondents, while Paetongtarn received support from 38.8%.
“I believe Bhumjaithai Party is the factor in the next election. It expanded negotiation power by siphoning many MPs from other parties,” Titipol told BenarNews. “For Prayuth, there remain many people who appreciate him. His waning popularity in the polls may not be significant to lead power changing hands after the election.”
Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report.