Thailand: New PM Faces A Crisis Of Confidence – Analysis


By Termsak Chalermpalanupap

Many challenges await the new Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin. First of all, as a political novice without any power base in Pheu Thai (PT), the largest party in the 11-party government coalition, he faces a crisis of confidence. More and more Thais doubt that he can stop corruption and improve lives and livelihoods – let alone lead Thailand back to genuine democracy.[1]

During the election campaign, as a premiership candidate of the PT, Srettha was less popular than Paetongtarn Shinawatra, another of the party’s premiership candidate, who is also the youngest daughter of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, and Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of Move Forward Party (MFP).

The 60-year-old real estate tycoon used to head Sansiri, the largest real estate public company on the Stock Exchange of Thailand, with an estimated market capitalisation of about 30.147 billion baht (US$ 840 million). He has been accused of engaging in “unethical” business practices (including tax evasion and price manipulation through mysterious nominees) in some of Sansiri’s land purchases.[2]

Both Sansiri and Srettha have denied any wrongdoing. Srettha, who resigned from the CEO post at Sansiri on 3 April, has sued Chuwit Kamolvisit, a former Bangkok MP, for slander and demanded 500 million baht as compensation.[3] Chuwit has responded with a threat to petition the National Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate Srettha.

The PT was in disarray after it failed to score a “landslide” victory in the May general election. At first, it had to play second fiddle to the MFP, the election winner, in haphazardly attempting to win the premiership for MFP’s Pita. After Pita’s failure due to lack of support from senators, the PT seized the opportunity to “divorce” the MFP and decided instead to work with parties in the previous Prayut Administration, which many PT supporters disdain as vestiges of authoritarianism.

Srettha’s premiership will practically be held hostage by its four major coalition partners, all of which are former opponents of the PT: Bhumjaithai (BJT, 71 MPs), Palang Pracharath (PPRP, 40 MPs) and United Thai Nation (UTN, 36 MPs), and Chartthai Pattana (10 MPs). The PT alone has only 141 MPs in the 11-party coalition of 314 MPs.[4]

Without the support of these four parties, which were part of the Prayut Administration, the current PT-led coalition would lose control of the majority in the 500-member House of Representatives; Srettha would then risk being toppled in a no-confidence motion.

In addition to the above predicament, Srettha also has to deal with another “political hot potato” – Thaksin, who has been undergoing some unspecified emergency treatment in the Police Hospital after surrendering himself on 22 August to face an 8-year jail term upon his return from 17 years of overseas exile. About one week after his return, Thaksin quietly submitted a personal request for royal clemency. On 1 September, the Royal Gazette published a decision of the King to reduce the jail term of Thaksin from eight years to one.

How will Thaksin serve this remaining one-year jail term, and under what extraordinary arrangements during the Srettha Administration will be a closely watched issue. The Corrections Department on 21 September approved Thaksin’s request to extend his stay in hospital by 30 more days.

It will be a remarkable achievement if the Srettha premiership lasts till its mid-term in May 2025, when his administration is expected to deliver a new and democratic “people’s constitution”.[5]


So far, it remains a mystery who invited Srettha to join the PT prior to the May general election. One speculation has it that it was Yingluck, former prime minister and younger sister of Thaksin, who recommended him. Srettha was a known critic of the Prayut Administration.

At first, Srettha was given merely an informal role as chief advisor to the head of the “Pheu Thai Family,” Paetongtarn. He subsequently emerged as one of the PT’s three premiership candidates. The two other candidates are Paetongtarn, and Chaikasem Nitisiri, a former justice minister in the Yingluck Administration.

Srettha’s most memorable feat during the election campaign was to unveil on 5 April the PT’s ambitious pledge to give every Thai who is 16 years old and above a “digital wallet” containing (the right to use) 10,000 baht for spending within their neighbourhoods.[6]

Not having any formal post in the PT leadership, Srettha played no role in the selection of election candidates. Neither did he have much say on who would join his cabinet. The cabinet list was submitted to the King on 1 September, ten days after Srettha had won the premiership on 22 August. The Royal Gazette published the King’s approval on 2 September.[7]

Key ministerial posts went to senior politicians who are influential leaders of factions within the PT, and to Thaksin’s lieutenants. One of them, Dr Prommin Lertsuridej, will be the chief-of-staff to Prime Minister Srettha. In all probability, few of them will be willing to obey Srettha, to whom they owe neither gratitude nor allegiance.

Interestingly, Srettha is concurrently the finance minister.[8] This will enable him to push the implementation of the “digital wallet” plan. More importantly, he can control the purse strings and keep an eye on spending and decide on new budget requests from all ministers. He will be assisted by a deputy finance minister from the UTN, Krisada Chinavicharana, who on 31 August resigned as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Finance.

Not being an MP has both advantages and disadvantages. Srettha will have more time to travel overseas, which he wants to do every month in order to negotiate free trade agreements with Thailand’s key trading partners.[9] Srettha reportedly secured a deputy foreign minister of his choice, Jakkapong Sangmanee, the PT’s registrar, to assist him in this endeavour.

However, one huge disadvantage in not being a legislator is a tendency to lose touch with MPs and senators, whose support he needs in order to push through in a timely manner key legislations – especially constitutional amendments.


Perils of the Srettha coalition government could already be seen in the tedious “horse-trading” for cabinet posts. The commotion began as soon as the PT announced its decision in early August to part ways with the MFP. Pol Gen Sereepisuth Temeeyaves, leader of Thai Liberal, one of the coalition partners with only one MP, compared the infighting to “dogs fighting over a rice bowl”.[10]

Many MPs in the PT were surprised and upset to see the interior minister post go to BJT leader Anutin Charnvirakul,[11] and the agriculture minister post to PPRP secretary-general Thammanat Prompao. The former post controls all provincial governors and local government administrations; the latter is in a position to help farmers nationwide. Both are crucial in winning the hearts and minds of the provincial poor.

The PT also sacrificed the energy minister post and let it go to UTN leader Pirapan Salirathavibhaga in exchange for the defence minister post which the UTN had earlier wanted. The energy minister will have a crucial role to play in bringing down prices of electricity, diesel, gasoline, and cooking gas to curb the rising cost of living. This is crucial in winning urban votes.

The defence minister post went to Sutin Klungsang, one of the PT’s deputy party leaders. He has recruited General Nipat Thonglek, a former permanent secretary of defence with a reputation for being a “Democracy General”, to be his chief assistant. Sutin has become the first civilian in modern times to head the Ministry of Defence without concurrently holding the premiership.[12] But Sutin’s appointment came too late to change the annual military reshuffle.

Under the careful watch of outgoing PM General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was concurrently the defence minister, appointments of the new Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Army Commander, Air Force Commander, and Navy Commander were swiftly done. Announced on 30 August, the appointments take effect on 1 October 2023, at the start of the new fiscal year.[13]

The PT had to yield – some PT negotiators said they had to “swallow blood!” – in order to secure support from these former “enemy parties” to help Srettha win the premiership. And they are cognizant of the fact that crucial support for Srettha will continue to come only at a price. The PT as well as Srettha must allow ministers from coalition partners some leeway to advance their respective parties’ agendas without unnecessary intervention from the head of government.

One serious risk that Srettha cannot avoid is to be held responsible for whatever corruption and other wrongdoings in the government under his watch. He can learn from the example of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who had to flee the country to avoid a 5-year jail term for failing to stop massive corruption in the infamous paddy pledging scheme of her administration.[14]

Srettha’s dilemma lies in his need for support from these coalition partners to stay in power long enough to deliver concrete results. At the same time, his dependency on them can be mistaken by ministers as a licence to abuse power with impunity. In such a situation, corruption in the Srettha Administration may thrive and spread faster than the Thai economy can recover.


When asked what kind of prime minister he wants to be, Srettha has responded: “People’s prime minister”; he has pleaded repeatedly through the mass media to give his “people’s government” a chance to prove its worthiness.

Following his formal acceptance of the royal command to serve as prime minister on 23 August, Srettha announced his conviction that the next four yours of his premiership would be “four years of changes”. He also reaffirmed the pledge of the PT-led coalition government to work “tirelessly” to make Thailand a land of hope for the younger generation and a land of happiness for all, and to “once again win honour and dignity for Thailand in the international arena”.[15]

Therefore, in his first cabinet meeting on 13 September, Srettha secured quick decisions on lowering prices of electricity and diesel; suspending repayment of debts of farmers and SMEs for three years; and introducing new visa-free entry for more foreign tourists.[16] Also high on his to-do-list are cutting prices of gasoline and cooking gas, and providing new financial support for distressed SMEs.

Another high priority for Srettha is to put in place by 1 February the digital wallet to stimulate nationwide spending during the Songkran water festival in mid-April. It is still unclear how he is to raise the 560 billion baht needed to give 56 million adults 10,000 baht each. This huge special stimulus injection was not included in the new fiscal budget of 2024, which starts on 1 October 2023.

The Srettha Administration will also push for legal recognition of same-sex marriages, development of a new volunteer military, and drafting a new constitution.

However, what the actual policy of the Srettha Administration towards marijuana and hemp will be, remains unclear. The PT promised during the election campaign to return marijuana and hemp back to the list of banned narcotics. But the BJT, now the second largest party in the coalition government, vowed to defend “free” cultivation and the sale and use of marijuana and hemp for medicinal purposes.

Ex-PT leader Dr Cholnan Sri-kaew, in his capacity as the new public health minister, will now have the unenviable task of finding a new compromise. Dr Cholnan on 31 August stepped down as PT leader to take responsibility for his failed pledge not to let the PT embrace the two parties of the two ageing generals—the PPRP of General Prawit Wongsuwan,[17] and the UTN of General Prayut.[18]

One sensitive omission that all in the PT-led coalition government can readily agree upon is to leave untouched the controversial Section 112 of the Criminal Code, the so-called lese-majeste law. This was in fact one of the crucial preconditions of many senators who voted for Srettha on 22 August.

Another play-safe move for Srettha is to avoid offending the Thai military and their conservative allies in the Senate by not advocating “reforms” of the armed forces. Instead, Srettha’s softer approach is to go for “joint development”[19] in full consultation with all relevant stakeholders in the military and in the general public.

Yet, another sensitive and pressing issue confronting Srettha is how to deal with Thaksin, who now has a one-year jail term to serve following the King’s commutation of his sentences from altogether eight years down to one. Any new preferential treatment for Thaksin will only confirm the widespread public suspicion that Thaksin is wielding actual power behind the PT and is secretly manipulating the Srettha premiership.


One of the old and continuing challenges confronting Srettha is the polarisation between conservatives who want to preserve the status quo, and the young who want more rapid changes. A large majority of the latter voted for the MFP because of its clear agenda for change – including reform of the military and the monarchy.

Nevertheless, most political parties inside the coalition government as well as the MFP (149 MPs) and the Democrat Party (25 MPs) tend to see eye to eye on the need to give Thailand a new and genuinely democratic constitution. A civil society movement on 30 August submitted to the Election Commission a list of 212,139 signatures calling for a new constitution.[20] Such a petition normally needs only 50,000 signatures.

However, every proposal to amend the 2017 Constitution requires support of at least one-third of senators (83 senators). At the premiership voting on 22 August, 152 of 249 senators voted for Srettha.

It is unclear how many senators will support the drafting of a new constitution. Several senators have voiced their opposition to such a move, which they consider to be of low national priority.

The current batch of senators will leave in May 2024, at the end of their five-year transitional period during which they had had the authority to join MPs in selecting a new prime minister. After their departure, the Senate will be filled by a new batch of 200 senators selected from professional groups through own-peer voting who however will no longer have the authority to join in the premiership selection.

A majority of MPs in the lower House will then be in a position to approve the drafting of a new constitution. One key decision to be made is whether to choose drafters in a national election; or to handpick them through a search committee. PT’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Commerce Phumtham Wechayachai has been appointed to be in charge of setting up a committee to study ways and means of holding a national referendum and drafting a new constitution.

If the drafters come from a national election, what will happen if a majority of them are supporters of the MFP, and what if they produce a far-reaching reform-oriented new constitution? The Srettha Administration will face a deadly dilemma: either block such a progressive new constitution, or fall apart with the resignation of Srettha from the premiership and his calling of an early general election.

Such a dreadful scenario is plausible, considering the fact that the MFP has gained a great deal of public sympathy in the wake of Pita’s failure to win the premiership, and the subsequent rejection of the resubmission of his name for another round of premiership selection. Pita on 16 September resigned as leader of the MFP. Secretary-general Chaitawat Tulathon is expected to succeed Pita.

 One recent survey found that the MFP’s popularity rose from 30.20% in the May general election to 49.04% in late August; whereas the PT’s popularity dropped from 28.20% to only10.65%.[21]

In addition, MFP’s candidate Pongsathorn Sornpetnarin easily captured a House seat in the by-election in Rayong’s Constituency 3 on 10 September, with 39,296 votes. In the second place was Democrat Party’s Dr Banyat Jatnachan, who received only 26,466 votes.

It is therefore pragmatic for Srettha to concentrate first on tackling economic woes besetting the Thai people. He needs to deliver quick good results, so that he has more bargaining power in dealing with his coalition partners as well as in keeping the MFP at bay. The latter objective is important if he is to secure continued endorsement of the influential conservative establishment for Srettha’s premiership.


The new Thai prime minister is facing an uphill struggle. His lack of a political power base inside the lead government party is a serious handicap.

He can count on support from his coalition partners only as long as they are happy to work with him in this rather shaky coalition government.

A growing number of unhappy Thais are rather sceptical that he has what it takes to succeed.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

About the author: Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow and is Acting Coordinator for the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Source: This article was published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute

The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), an autonomous organization established by an Act of Parliament in 1968, was renamed ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute in August 2015. Its aims are: To be a leading research centre and think tank dedicated to the study of socio-political, security, and economic trends and developments in Southeast Asia and its wider geostrategic and economic environment. To stimulate research and debate within scholarly circles, enhance public awareness of the region, and facilitate the search for viable solutions to the varied problems confronting the region. To serve as a centre for international, regional and local scholars and other researchers to do research on the region and publish and publicize their findings. To achieve these aims, the Institute conducts a range of research programmes; holds conferences, workshops, lectures and seminars; publishes briefs, research journals and books; and generally provides a range of research support facilities, including a large library collection.

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