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Stakes high as Prayut switches parties

Finally, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced on Friday his decision to join the Ruam Thai Sang Chart, or United Thai Nation (UTN) party, to become its first choice candidate for the premiership at the next election.

In the meantime, the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) has announced its nominee for party leader, deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwon, as its first premiership candidate.

This means the two brothers-in-arms — with a history dating back to when Gen Prawit served as Gen Prayut’s first superior following the latter’s graduation from the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy — are on a collision course.

Considering the old Thai proverb “Two tigers cannot dwell together in the same cave”, Gen Prayut and Gen Prawit had been staying under the same roof, with the former serving as an important “guest” since his nomination as the party’s candidate for premiership about four years ago.

This stopped last Friday when Gen Prayut decided to pack up and say goodbye to Gen Prawit after being treated like a pariah by most of the party’s MPs.

Another reason for Gen Prayut’s parting is that he still wants to stay on as prime minister for two more years to fulfil his maximum eight years in office.

Gen Prawit, on the other hand, may feel unimportant in playing the second fiddle and wants to be number one.

Although Gen Prayut tried to play down his departure, claiming that his bond with Gen Prawit remains unbreakable, his decision will affect the PPRP, causing some MPs to defect to UTN.

Even the opposition Pheu Thai party feels the heat of Gen Prayut’s predictable decision. Pheu Thai deputy leader Chusak Sirinil has called on PPRP to pull out of the coalition government “to bear responsibility for nominating Gen Prayut and setting up the government”.

He said there is no point in supporting Gen Prayut because the prime minister has abandoned his party.

Unfortunately for Mr Chusak, there has been no response from Gen Prawit or PPRP executives regarding the call to abandon ship. Why? Because most members are still happy on board the ship, with plenty of food and water, until the election is due, likely in May.

Meanwhile, Pheu Thai MPs do not have development projects to show voters after sitting in the opposition camp for almost eight years.

That may explain why the party has been calling for the prime minister to dissolve the House for an early election. The party is confident it would win in a landslide.

But the prime minister has simply ignored the call.

The period from now until election day offers a good opportunity for the prime minister to curry favour with the people and win support for the government, not to mention the PPRP and UTN as well.

Who knows? There may be more economic stimulus or populist policies to roll out in the near future.

Although he has never claimed to be a full-fledged politician in terms of being a party member, Gen Prayut — a former army chief — has transcended into a smart politician. Just wait and see how he will fulfil his new role as UTN’s candidate for the next premiership.

The race for the premiership is expected to be fierce with top contenders such as Gen Prayut, Gen Prawit, Bhumjaithai party leader Anutin Charnvirakul and the Pheu Thai candidate, who has yet to be decided by the de facto party leader, exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Currently, who gets the nomination is a toss-up between his youngest daughter Paetongtarn and real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin.

Clearly, parties are divided into three camps: anti-military, pro-democracy; pro-establishment; and undecided, which could swing either way.

UTN was founded by several former Democrats closely associated with the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which spearheaded mass protests against the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra more than eight years ago.

Members of the Democrat Party are regarded as being in the pro-establishment camp and will never join hands with Pheu Thai.

Without Gen Prayut, PPRP — which comprises many MPs from Thaksin’s now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party and its successive iterations — is now a free agent.

Hence, speculation that the party and Pheu Thai may form the next government if the latter fails to win via a landslide victory.

But the big question is: Who will be their next prime minister? Gen Prawit or either of the two potential Pheu Thai candidates — Paetongtarn or Mr Srettha? Bear in mind that Gen Prawit no longer wants to play second fiddle.

The political stakes are high. The next election promises to be very exciting indeed.

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, ‘Bangkok Post’.

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