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As Thailand recovers from Covid-19, its volatile domestic politics returns

Leaders of various political parties, including PPRP leader Uttama Savanayon (centre right), pose for a photograph after a press conference in June 2019 endorsing Prayut Chan-O-Cha for the position of prime minister. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

While Thailand is gaining the upper hand over the crisis of Covid-19, its chronic domestic political crisis has also quickly made its way back,  raising questions as to what Thailand’s post-Covid-19 politics will look like. 

On June 1, 2020, 18 of 34 members from the executive committee of the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), which forms the core of Thailand’s current coalition government, resigned from their positions. The immediate and simultaneous resignations of the 18 highlighted the party’s sharp internal power struggles, and importantly if more than half of the executive members resign, according to party regulations, the PPRP needs to hold a general assembly to vote for a new executive committee within 45 days. 

The PPRP is a large, fragile political party. Though the PPRP has 116 MPs – second only to Pheu Thai’s 136 MPs at the March 2019 general election – the party itself, as well as their coalition government, are formed from a fragile joining of factions from different political strongholds, holding differing visions. 

Among the 18 executive members who submitted their letters of resignation on June 1 were the Sam Mitr (Three Allies or Three Friends) group led by Suriya Jungrungreangkit, the Chon Buri group led by Suchart Chomklin, the Korat group led by Virat Ratanasate, Bangkok MPs led by Nataphol Teepsuwan, and northern MPs led by Capt Thamanat Prompow. Each group has its own political sphere of influence in both legislative and executive branches, with the speculations of internal power struggle to get the ministerial posts in the PPRP having never subsided. 

The new PPRP executive committee will likely prompt not only a selection of the new party leader and secretary-general, but also a major cabinet reshuffle. Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, who is currently the chief strategist of the PPRP, is tipped to replace Uttama Savanayana as new party leader. Who will take over the position of secretary-general, however, remains unclear with this key position also subject to internal power struggle in the PPRP.  

More importantly, it has also been rumoured that some ministers are subject to the upcoming cabinet reshuffle. The ministers of Finance, Energy, and Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation – as well as Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, who is playing a key role in economic affairs – are subject to reshuffle. 

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, however, has maintained there will be no cabinet reshuffle in the near future citing several urgent tasks to deal with the recovery of Covid-19. Yet, the timeline of political development suggests he could just be paying lip service to this idea, with a major cabinet reshuffle looking unavoidable.

Even though the PPRP has claimed the party is strongly united, it is pretty clear that the party’s intensive power competition among political factions has continued growing

The most important question, however, is who will be leaving and who will be coming to take over the vacant posts. Even though the PPRP has claimed the party is strongly united, it is pretty clear that the party’s intensive power competition among political factions has continued growing. Every faction wants the so-called “A-list” cabinet post, such the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Energy. 

The Ministry of Finance, in particular, has reportedly been on the radar of some prominent figures in the PPRP, with an internal party source telling The Bangkok Post on June 3 that a power struggle “is raging, with major factions plotting a leadership change and a push for a cabinet reshuffle so they can control the Finance Ministry” in order to oversee a 1-trillion-baht ($32 billion) Covid-19 relief plan. 

More importantly, the power struggle for more ministerial posts has stemmed not only from the internal competition of the PPRP, but also some of the PPRP’s government coalition partners. It is important to recall that it took the PPRP three months to form a 20-party coalition government after the election in March 2019. The slow move resulted from the tough power sharing negotiations with coalition partners, who demanded the grade-A ministries. 

After the Constitutional Court of Thailand ruled to dissolve the opposition Future Forward Party (FFP) in mid-February 2020, at least nine MPs of FFP defected to the Bhumjaithai party, which was then the third-largest party in the PPRP coalition government. With the defections from the FFP, Bhumjaithai increased the number of its MPs to 61 and surpassed the Democrats to become the second-largest party in the PPRP-led coalition. As Bhumjaithai’s MPs grow, it will likely ask for more ministerial quota in the PPRP-led coalition government. 

In addition to the Bhumjaithai party, it is also possible that some small parties might take this opportunity to re-group for the second time to demand ministerial posts. Such a power struggle already surfaced when the leader of Thai Civilized Party, Mongkolkit Suksintharanon, who was then leading a bloc of 10 single-seat parties in the coalition, threatened to walk out and support the opposition parties if his bloc was not granted a position in the new cabinet. 

Similarly, Damrong Pideth, the head of the Thai Forest Conservation Party, which won two party-list seats, has previously warned he will walk out and work as independent opposition if his party is not granted any positions in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. 

More does not necessarily mean better. In Thailand’s contemporary history, the weakness of politics is the coalition government. Instead of providing effective checks and balances within the coalition, too many parties runs the risk of intensive internal power struggle and political anarchy. 

As Surachart Bamrungsuk, Professor at the Department of International Relations at Chulalongkorn University, argued “as long as those factions continue to vie for power, long-term political stability will remain out of reach”. 

After ruling the country for more than a year, the PPRP’s public image has been tarnished largely due to poor leadership, policy mismanagement, a series of power abuses and human rights violations and rampant corruption scandals. 

The change of the PPRP’s leadership and the upcoming cabinet reshuffle may only intensify political upheaval and the ongoing power competitions among the politicians, rather than assisting people suffering from the economic downturn. 

So with the majority of Thais fed up with the PPRP-led coalition government, its future becomes increasingly uncertain.

“Most coalition governments,” says Professor Surachart, recalling Thailand’s recent history, “were brought down by internal strife, not by the opposition”.

Sek Sophal holds a Master’s degree in Asia Pacific Studies from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. He is a researcher of the Center for Democracy Promotion, Ritsumeikan Center for Asia Pacific Studies, at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. 

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