The ruling party’s latest internal reshuffle indicates it desperately wants to win the next election, amid speculation that the national poll will be called early.
Palang Pracharath Party rejigged its executive board at a general assembly on Friday (June 18) which saw General Prawit Wongsuwan return as leader and his protégé Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thammanat Prompow elected unopposed as secretary-general.
Analysts say the ruling party’s new executive committee and ongoing push for changes to the Constitution leave it well placed to return and form the next government.
They add that appointing influential political “fixer” Thammanat as secretary-general relieves pressure on Palang Pracharath, as he can give the government security and tackle obstacles in its path.
Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said Thammanat’s appointment is timely given the government is facing pressure over its perceived failure to tackle the outbreak and rebuild the economy.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced this week the country will fully reopen within 120 days, with all business operations back to normal and foreign tourists free to travel anywhere.
However, failure to deliver on that deadline would be another big setback for the government, Wanwichit warned.
“Hence, the party needs someone like Thammanat, who is ‘decisive, fearless and reliable’, to inject confidence and trust into its own MPs, politicians from other parties and voters. He can help ease the pressure mounting on the government,” Wanwichit said.
The draft bill for a national referendum on charter change is back in the spotlight, with Parliament due next week to resume deliberations that were suspended in April. The government-sponsored bill would open the door to the rewriting of a Constitution that has been criticized as undemocratic and designed to extend the military’s grip on power.
Komson Pohkong, a law lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said Thammanat’s ability to handle disputes between locals suffering from government policies and state agencies will benefit Palang Pracharath when it campaigns for votes.
Thammanat previously led a government panel tackling a long-running dispute between the government and Karen villagers in Phetchaburi’s Kaeng Krachan National Park. He also tackled local opposition to the controversial Chana Industrial Estate project in Songkhla.
“It’s important to have an influential charismatic person in charge of election campaigns in constituencies,” Komson said.
As well as wooing voters, the well-connected Thammanat may be deployed to lure politicians from other parties to join Palang Pracharath, bringing with them votes that could be decisive in the next election, the analyst said.
Thammanat is credited with getting 10 to 20 opposition MPs to either support the government or abstain when the administration came under scrutiny.
Tweaking law for personal benefit
However, handing Thammanat the role of secretary-general is only one plank of the ruling party’s strategy for victory in the next poll. Another is its draft bill for changes to the Constitution, which will be deliberated in Parliament next week.
The bill’s amendment of the electoral system would be especially beneficial to the ruling party. The current electoral system – where a single ballot is used to vote for constituency candidates and to calculate party seats – has made it tough for a single party to achieve a parliamentary majority and form a government.
The amendment would see this system revert to two separate ballots.
Meanwhile, Palang Pracharath’s proposed amendments to Articles 144 and 185 would also give it an advantage, said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
The proposed change to Article 144 would allow MPs to make alterations or additions to an Appropriations bill, while its amendment of Article 185 would enable MPs and senators to contact provincial agencies directly to provide aid to locals.
The articles in their current form were written to prevent conflicts of interest and stop government officials from being bullied or reshuffled out of their posts by politicians.
These changes would benefit Palang Pracharath MPs, Yuthaporn said.
“For instance, they could order a provincial governor [currently supervised by Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda] to do favours for them by claiming it’s for the people,” the analyst said.
Humans make rules, dissolve parliaments, woo voters, mark ballots, and set up administrations, but the new normal of politics stipulates that they aren’t the ones actually in control. Those activities and their eventual outcomes will be dictated by another life form which most eyes can’t see.
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Only a slight ripple
The appointment of Thammanat, reportedly a favourite of “Big Brother” Prawit, is likely to stir an undercurrent of tension within the party. His predecessor, PM’s Office Minister Anucha Nakasai, is a member of the “Sam Mitr” (“Three Friends”) faction led by Industry Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit and Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin.
However, observers believe that Prawit and Thammanat will be able to handle any rifts as they now stand together as a united front. The transition may also be eased by handing Somsak the post of party chief strategist as a consolation.
“I don’t think the [Sam Mitr] faction has enough force to create a stir or bargain for power,” Yuthaporn said.
Also, removing Anucha from his post as secretary-general will weaken Sam Mitr, as Prawit tries to manage the battle of power between different party factions, he added.
This is the second executive committee reshuffle since the party was set up in 2018. The first saw then-party leader Uttama Savanayana, who also steered the “Four Boys” faction comprising key economic ministers, forced to resign last year.
All sins are forgiven
Thammanat had been favourite to become the party’s No 2, especially after the Phayao MP survived a court ruling in May over his eligibility for office in light of his 1994 heroin smuggling conviction in Australia, for which he spent four years in jail.
As new secretary-general, Thammanat expressed confidence that the party leader and members will join hands to make Palang Pracharath bigger and stronger.
“We have never lost a by-election and we can be confident we won’t lose [in the future]. We are confident that we will win more seats and become the biggest party in the next election,” he said after being appointed.
Palang Pracharath came in second behind Pheu Thai in the March 2019 election but managed to gain enough backing from allies to form a government.
Since then, Thammanat has played a key role in helping the party win by-elections in Kamphaeng Phet, Khon Kaen, Lampang and Nakhon Si Thammarat. He is expected to take charge of the Bangkok gubernatorial election later this year. The ruling party is reportedly backing national police chief Chakthip Chaijinda to become the next governor.
Thammanat also said he will set a new direction and policy for Palang Pracharath to prove it is not a “temporary” party, as perceived by the public. He said he is determined to turn it into a strong institution in Thai politics.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk