When all the Apec summit formalities are over, it's likely Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha will make the uncertainty about his political future clearer, particularly over whether he will cut links with the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and align with the Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party (RTSCP), recently set up by his close aides. One thing is clear, he has no plan to leave politics.
Although his eligibility to serve as prime minister is limited to just a few more years, following a charter court ruling which was based on the 2017 military-sponsored constitution, the junta-leader-turned-premier still wants to take his chances and continue in politics, and serve as PM. Chances are high that he will take the helm of the RTSCP — which will officially be launched next month after the charter court rules on the organic election bills.
Some people may want to link his planned split with the PPRP with the speculated rift between him and Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon. But there is no rift. The two generals may have had their awkward moments, but they will never separate.
In fact, Gen Prayut joining the RTSCP, set up by Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, could be just the right move for his political future.
After more than eight years in politics, Gen Prayut looks unappealing to voters. He needs an image makeover; moving to the RTSCP could serve this purpose.
Right from the start, the PPRP was projected to be a one-time party, formed to support Gen Prayut. If political history acts as a guide, this kind of party always emerges after a coup. For example, the military-leaning Samakkitham was set up to support Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon in 1992, so that he could be prime minister.
Before that, the Seri Manangasila Party was formed for Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongram in the 1950s, and Saha Prachathai for Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachon decades later. All these parties had a short life; now the PPRP is facing the same fate.
In fact, the RTSCP is a reincarnation of the crumbling PPRP. But it’ll make use of some mechanisms in the 2019 charter to enable the ex-junta leader to get the upper hand over his rivals. What is going on is a plan that was hatched earlier this year. Gen Prayut fully realised that if he kept dancing with the PPRP, which has experienced some bad internal rifts, both would come to a sticky end. So Mr Pirapan, Mr Prayut’s close aide, resigned from the PPRP last April to pursue the RTSCP mission, gathering those belonging to the now-defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and members of the Democrats who could no longer tolerate the nepotism running deep within Thailand’s oldest party under Jurin Laksanawisit.
The RTSCP is a new party and has no MPs. The party’s board has just been set up, with Mr Pirapan as party leader. Having been with the Democrats for about 25 years, Mr Pirapan left the party after he lost a party leadership fight with Mr Jurin in 2019.
Assuming the role of RTSCP secretary-general is Ekkanat Prompan, former Democrat MP for Bangkok and stepson of Suthep Thaugsuban, a PDRC heavyweight. Mr Ekanat resigned from the Democrats earlier this year.
Mr Pirapan is quite pragmatic. He does not think the RTSCP will be able to win big and become the ruling party at the next poll. Instead, he aims for 40-50 seats, or at least 25 seats, the minimum requirement stipulated by the charter for a party to submit a candidate for prime minister.
More importantly, he is adamant that the RTSCP won’t be a branch of the Democrats. He is confident, however, the party can get a clean sweep in the southern region, formerly the Democrats’ political stronghold. There, Gen Prayut’s popularity remains strong.
His moderate goals derive from the reality that the government’s overall popularity is not so good. But if the RTSCP can win at least 25 seats and submit a candidate for prime minister, the party can make use of the 250-strong Senate to secure the top job for that candidate, Gen Prayut.
This could happen if Pheu Thai cannot win by a landslide, or the seats the main opposition party wins together with the Move Forward Party do not make up a majority, a key condition for forming a government.
Indeed, it could be too difficult for the RTSCP to win 40-50 seats, given it being largely unknown to voters. But the party might achieve this by siphoning off southern MPs from the PPRP and the Democrats. In the South, Gen Prayut is more popular than Mr Jurin, or Paetongtarn Shinawatra. He lags behind Ms Paetongtarn elsewhere.
The party also expects that a few Democrat MPs in the Central Plains and the northern region will follow Gen Prayut. In the South, 10 out of 22 Democrat MPs, especially those in Surat Thani, where Mr Suthep has a tight grip, will add clout to the RTSCP. The party should be able to welcome another 10 out of the 13 PPRP MPs in this region as the party, after being dumped by Gen Prayut, will lose its appeal. It’s safe to say the South is a battlefield for coalition parties — the PPRP, the Democrats, and Bhumjaithai. Under such circumstances, the Democrats and PPRP look set to be the big losers.
Apart from those in the South, Gen Prayut can count on PPRP members in other factions, like MPs attached to Suchart Chomklin’s camp, as well as the Sam Mitr group of Somsak Thepsutin. He should be able to secure loyalty from those in Santi Prompat’s camp in the Central Plains and in the lower northern areas. Altogether the RTSCP can expect 20-25 seats from these factions. Until then, Thamanat Prompow, who initially planned to return to Pheu Thai, may have the PPRP as another option once all his enemies move to the RTSCP.
Therefore, Gen Prayut can be the RTSCP’s strength, given his remaining appeal that makes the party a good option for MPs from other parties. But his limited tenure, running the country until 2025 instead of four years, is his weakness.
The party realises this, so is taking a pragmatic approach, doing whatever to ensure Gen Prayut’s victory, and offering a “50:50 premiership” as a Plan B, which means the party may propose Mr Pirapan as the No.2 candidate. Or there could be another formula, such as Gen Prayut as PM, to be followed by Gen Prawit or even Anutin Charnvirakul, Bhumjaithai’s leader.
One possibility that cannot be dismissed is: Gen Prayut is named premier for the third time and the charter drafting process is started and finished in two years’ time. There may be attempts for a change of the rules, like removing the eight-year tenure limit from the new charter. Particularly, when the new supreme law is in place, likely by 2025, pressure for a new election may rise as most, if not all, politicians will want to use the new rules.
So, there are no coincidences. What has happened in the past weeks was planned. The leaders know that going their separate ways is better than sticking together and failing. It’s a last-ditch effort for survival and they are ready to take the chance, even if that means those on the conservative side will have to turn against one another.