The legal team of Thailand’s House of Representatives has asserted that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s premiership formally began not in 2014 when he came to power in a military coup, but in mid-2019 when he assumed office through the electoral process and gained royal endorsement under the current constitution, which came into force in 2017. This means that under the eight-year term limit of the current constitution, Prayut can serve until mid-2027.
The interpretation has caused an uproar among Prayut’s foes, who believe that his premiership started in August 2014 when he was officially appointed as head of state following the coup. Based on this logic and the eight-year limit, Prayut’s term must end in August 2022. The main opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP), together with other five opposition parties, has already vowed to bring this matter to the Constitutional Court.
If popularity alone was the deciding factor, Prayut would almost certainly be voted out before his maximum tenure ends in mid-2027. Prayut initially had massive support from stability seekers and conservatives, but his one-dimensional decision making dominated by security concerns, budget mismanagement, and insincere reforms have gradually driven his supporters away. Against the backdrop of a devastating economic downturn fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Prayut’s popularity is plunging toward rock bottom.
That said, at this point in time there appears to be no promising candidate with widespread public support who is likely to replace Prayut. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) just before the New Year, a plurality (36.54 percent) of the 2,504 respondents said that there was no suitable individual for the role of prime minister. Past NIDA surveys on the same topic also reveal similar findings, with “nobody” as the most common answer to the question about the ideal prime minister candidate. The 2020 third-quarter survey, for instance, saw up to 54.13 percent of respondents picking “nobody.”
Prayut comes in as a second pick in all of these NIDA polls, yet his scores highlight a clear pattern of decline. His rating peaked in the final quarter of 2020 at 30.32 percent before dropping and reaching an all-time low at 16.39 percent in the latest poll.
In contrast, Pita Limjaroenrat of the opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) has been rising steadily. A relatively young and well-educated man with progressive stances on social issues, Pita is a popular pick among younger generations. But the conservative forces that continue to dominate Thailand’s political landscape view Pita and his reformist party with suspicion, if not outright hostility. While conservative voters may have nothing against issues such as army reform and same-sex marriage, they find the issue of monarchy reform, which has been strongly advocated by the MFP, unacceptable.
Conservative elites, meanwhile, see almost all aspects of the MFP as a threat to their interests and roles within the established order. This includes the conduct of foreign policy. On the Myanmar conflict, for example, the MFP supports a very tough stance against Myanmar’s junta, which puts the party at odds with Thailand’s traditional style of quiet diplomacy.
In terms of the most preferred political party, the main opposition PTP – engineered by the self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – is leading in the polls. However, the party leadership appears fractured. Sudarat Keyuraphan, PTP’s former chief and Thaksin’s right-hand woman, abruptly left PTP last November and proceeded to launch her own party. Several veteran members of the PTP also resigned along with Sudarat.
PTP’s leadership has fallen into the hands of Cholnan Srikaew, an MP from Nan province in northern Thailand, but he is becoming increasingly overshadowed by Thaksin’s heir Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who is now the party’s adviser on inclusiveness and innovation. PTP is currently reaching out to young voters and it is quite clear that Thaksin is seeking to promote his daughter as a prime ministerial candidate, thereby paving a way for his glorious return to Thailand. This will not be an easy task, considering that Paetongtarn has little political experience and will need bolder ideas to compete with the MFP for youth votes.
The Phalang Pracharat Party (PPRP), Bhumjaithai Party (BJTP), and Democrat Party (DP) – three leading members of the governing coalition – all have no ideal candidates. The military-backed PPRP is led by General Prawit Wongsuwan, who has been embroiled in many controversies, most notably the luxury wristwatch scandal. Similarly, the BJTP leader Anutin Charnvirakul is considered a controversial figure due to his quirky remarks. And, as health minister in the midst of a pandemic, Anutin has become the public’s favorite punching bag. Jurin Laksanawisit of the DP, meanwhile, appears to be a weak leader who fails to unite his party. Given the DP’s progressive decline in its southern strongholds, Jurin’s goal of leading Thailand looks like an impossible dream.
It remains to be seen whether the Constitutional Court will give Prayut a green light to extend his premiership beyond August 2022. But whatever the outcome, there is no quick fix to Thailand’s leadership crisis and this will continue to hurt Thailand’s standing on the regional and global stages.