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Gen Prayut may have to switch parties to remain in power

Three years after accepting Palang Pracharath’s invitation to stand as its candidate for prime minister, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha faces a stark choice: Remain with the ruling party and risk political oblivion, or switch to a new party in hope of winning another term.

As both he and Palang Pracharath suffer waning popularity and internal powerplays, Prayut has also lost control and influence in the ruling party.

Meanwhile, other political parties have emerged as “reserves” for the premier in case he decides to ditch the Palang Pracharath banner – or it ditches him as PM candidate.

The latest party to offer itself as Prayut’s vehicle is Ruamthai Sarngchart, which was founded by Prime Minister’s Office vice minister Seksakol Atthawong.

The name Ruamthai Sarngchart (Uniting Thais to Build the Nation) was inspired by a phrase often used by Prayut and matches the name of a government initiative to fight COVID-19.

Another is Creative Thailand Party, launched late last year amid speculation that six Palang Pracharath ministers close to Prayut would join.

The six ministers comprise the Sam Mitr faction – Industry Minister Suriya Juangroongruangkit, Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin, and PM’s Office Minister Anucha Nakasai – along with Digital Economy and Society Minister Chaiwut Thanakhamanusorn, Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin, and Deputy Finance Minister Santi Prompat.

Why the ‘reserve’ parties?

Politicians from the conservative camp are convinced that Prayut will still be favorite among candidates for prime minister at the next election. And they have solid reasons for believing this, analysts say.

Firstly, Prayut is almost certain to be supported by the 250-member Senate, which is empowered to join the Lower House in voting for a PM after the election. The Senate was appointed by the Prayut-led junta to aid and prolong its time in power.

“The [senators’] power is a political trap,” said political analyst Wanwichit Boonprong from Rangsit University.

“Political parties [from the conservative camp] realize they cannot find candidates to compete with Prayut, so they are all using him as their selling point.”

With this trap in place, Prayut has a strong chance of becoming the next premier, which is why many parties see him as their vehicle to becoming part of the next government, Wanwichit said.

The emergence of these “reserve” parties is also being seen as a strategy to maximize benefits from the new electoral system.

The next election will be held under a two-ballot system, which will change the proportion of constituency and party-list MPs in the 500-member Lower House from 350 and 150, respectively, to 400 and 100.

Wanwichit said the founding of reserve parties was targeted at the expanded pool of constituency seats.  “The more constituency MPs a party has, the bigger its bargaining power [in Parliament],” the analyst said.

Palang Pracharath, he added, has realized that it cannot win in some constituencies due to its dropping popularity, so it is paving the way for allies or reserve parties to contest in those constituencies so they can later join hands to form a government.

Why Prayut is seeking a backup

After three years in office, Prayut appears to have lost control of the ruling party. The last straw came when Thammanat Prompao, then-party secretary-general, reportedly plotted to unseat the premier during last year’s censure debate.

Thammanat is known to be close to party leader Prawit Wongsuwan.

The power battle resulted in Prayut quickly firing Thammanat as deputy agriculture minister before Palang Pracharath expelled him and 20 of his followers last month.

“This shows Prayut failed to hold control over the party, so he obviously wants one that he can be in charge of, not one controlled by Prawit where he will continue struggling [against powerplays],” said Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok’s Institute.

However, the analyst still does not believe Prayut will become a party leader.

The “reserve” parties are also seen as alternatives for supporters of Prayut who are frustrated with certain Palang Pracharath politicians, analysts say.

“Prayut is unhappy with the party structure and some members. Some of his supporters also feel the same but have been voting for the ruling party to prevent their enemies [in the opposition] from winning,” Stithorn said.

He also mentioned other parties formed earlier to woo Prayut’s supporters in Palang Pracharath, such as Thai Pakdee (Loyal Thai) set up by pro-royalist Warong Dechgitvigrom and the Kla Party formed by ex-finance minister Korn Chatikavanij.

“They are portraying themselves as a ‘comfortable’ choice for Prayut supporters,” he said.

What is PM’s best option?

Despite the emergence of backup parties, many observers reckon Palang Pracharath is still Prayut’s first and best choice. The Constitution stipulates that a PM candidate can only be nominated by one party.

Also, with the thorn in his side now ousted, Prayut may consider sticking with Palang Pracharath at the next election, especially if he has more influence.

If Palang Pracharath is successful in rebranding, Prayut can take more control and MPs would be reluctant to defect. Remaining with Palang Pracharath would be beneficial and safe for Prayut to return to power, Stithorn said.However, failure of that strategy would leave Prayut needing to seek a reserve party.

Wanwichit agreed but pointed out that Prayut would base his choice on the number of MPs a party was expected to win.

He said Prayut would only agree to become a party’s PM candidate if he thinks it can come in at least a second with no less than 100 MPs. Otherwise, his return to power will not be too graceful even if he gets the votes of all 250 junta-appointed senators.

A sign that Gen Prayut is likely to stay with the ruling party came last week.

After Thammanat and his faction were ousted, party leader and Deputy PM Prawit insisted that Prayut would be nominated as Palang Pracharath’s PM candidate again.

Meanwhile, Prayut reportedly said he would stay in the ruling party after hearing that Prawit was tackling internal conflicts and planning to restructure the party.

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