“Anything can happen in Thai politics” was Thai Economic Party leader Thammanat Prompow’s reply when asked about the possibility of allying with the opposition Pheu Thai Party after the next general election.

His remark on Wednesday (July 13) came just a day after his party announced it was pulling out of the government coalition led by the Palang Pracharath Party. That sudden move followed by Thammanat’s statement could pave the way for a dramatic power play at the next poll.

However, analysts do not expect Thai Economic’s withdrawal to have a significant impact on the upcoming censure debate against PM Prayut Chan-o-cha and 10 other Cabinet members.

They expect the coalition to lobby smaller parties, and perhaps renegade opposition MPs, to vote in support of the targeted ministers.

can thammanat deliver death blow to teetering govt in censure debate - Can Thammanat deliver death blow to teetering govt in censure debate?

Thammanat’s political gamble

The pullout from the coalition is a political gamble for Thammanat and his party. If they switch sides and work seriously with the opposition against the government, whose popularity is sagging, they could improve their chances of winning seats in the next election, analysts say. But if they decline to vote against the targeted ministers, their withdrawal will be viewed as a bargaining move only.

The Thai Economic pullout will have no significant effect on Thai politics or the upcoming censure debate, says Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University (STOU).

“I think Thammanat is just trying to build his political sphere and boost his value. He always follows the trends,” said the analyst.

He pointed to the current trend of declining popularity for the government and the ruling Palang Pracharath Party.

Meanwhile, Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University, said it remains to be seen if the Thai Economic Party’s exit would take a toll on the government’s stability.

The pundit said Thammanat decided to leave the coalition as a survival strategy after his party lost Sunday’s by-election in Lampang’s Constituency 4 to the opposition Seri Ruam Thai Party.

Wanwichit said the public should wait to see if Thammanat joined the opposition camp to attack ministers and vote against them in next week’s censure debate.

“If that happens, it would mean he is serious about the pullout. Otherwise, it was just another prelude to his power bargaining,” said the analyst.

“This will be his chance to decide his political future for the next election and whether he and his party can go further,” Wanwichit said.

No longer coalition partner

It’s now clear that Thai Economic no longer considers itself a partner in the coalition government led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has been at odds with Thammanat since the previous censure debate last September. However, the newly “independent” party maintained it would listen to both the opposition and the targeted ministers before making its decision on how to vote on the censure motion.

Thammanat was not among the six Cabinet members grilled by the opposition in the last censure debate but was removed as deputy agriculture minister soon after. Prayut fired him just days after the post-debate vote, after the influential powerbroker reportedly plotted to oust the PM in the no-confidence vote.

The premier survived, but received the second-fewest votes of confidence while topping the list of no-confidence votes against the targeted Cabinet members.

Thammanat could be a threat to PM Prayut once again at the upcoming censure debate starting next Tuesday (July 19). His current party has 16 MPs, but Thammanat claims to have the support of more than 40 MPs from small and micro-parties, and possibly from Palang Pracharath as well.

Joining forces with small parties

However, the Thai Economic’s pullout could still undermine the stability of Prayut’s multi-party coalition government, whose majority in the 500-MP Lower House has been reduced to a razor-thin 253 seats.

Also, the “Group of 16” composed of MPs from small and micro-parties has threatened to join hands with Thammanat, who is scheduled to meet them next Monday (July 18) to discuss the upcoming no-confidence debate.

“If all 32 MPs from the Group of 16 and Thai Economic Party were to vote against any minister, he would certainly lose his seat,” said MP Pichate Satirachaval, the self-styled leader of the small parties. “We are likely to vote in the same direction.”

Pichate joined Palang Pracharath last year after his micro-party was disbanded.

Led by a master powerbroker

All Thai Economic MPs were expelled from Palang Pracharath along with Thammanat in January for causing disunity that damaged the party. At the time, Thammanat held the powerful post of secretary-general in the ruling party. His dissident faction had demanded a party restructuring and, reportedly, a ministerial post or two.

Thammanat was credited with successfully persuading 11 small parties to join a coalition led by Palang Pracharath, helping it to gain a slim majority in the House of Representatives to support Prayut’s rule.

“Thammanat is a shrewd operator, a wild card capable of creating political tensions or worse, and a man whom the prime minister and ministers facing the no-confidence motion cannot ignore,” said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a Thai analyst at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Analysts expect split vote

Some observers view the withdrawal of Thammanat’s party as a bad omen for PM Prayut ahead of the upcoming censure debate. But many pundits reckon that Prayut and other targeted ministers have a good chance of surviving the motion, although with varying levels of support votes.

“One thing is for sure, Thammanat and his MPs will vote for Prawit [Wongsuwan, the Palang Pracharath leader] as they are close. But it’s not certain whether Thammanat can persuade all his party MPs to vote against Prayut,” STOU’s Yuthaporn said.

The analyst expects Prayut to lobby for votes from some of Thammanat’s MPs as well as those from micro-parties.

Wanwichit is also convinced that Prayut will get votes of support from some renegade opposition MPs. However, he expects MPs from Thammanat’s party to vote differently according to the minister targeted.

He said Thammanat would likely try to embarrass his enemies in the ruling party by garnering as many no-confidence votes as possible against them.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk