A treacherous lot

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Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha presides over a religious ceremony on April 8, 2022 to mark the 135th anniversary of the founding of the Defence Ministry. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)

The next few months could be the most politically treacherous time for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha although toppling him and cutting short the life of his administration may be easier said than done.

The House is set to reconvene on May 22 to an intense power game highlighted by parliamentary deliberation of the budget bill, the no-confidence motion to be filed against the premier and key cabinet ministers, and Gen Prayut’s tenure debacle.

Speculation was rife about a renewed effort to oust the prime minister, after the first attempt to defeat him in a no-confidence motion in September last year, engineered by small parties and some MPs of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, failed.

The upcoming national budget bill and the looming censure motion, expected to be submitted to parliament later this month, are expected to trigger intense lobbying for votes.

Both the bill, the most crucial piece of finance-related legislation which could sink the administration if it fails to mobilise enough support from lawmakers to ensure its passage, and the censure bill will decide the government’s fate.

PM in ‘reserve’

Little wonder, the government has been spooked by news of a group of 16 PPRP MPs and members of small parties getting together recently over a meal with Yutthapong Charasathian, deputy leader of the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, on May 4.

The casual meeting, details of which have not been revealed, came on the heels of some key political players entertaining the notion of a prime minister in reserve replacing Gen Prayut in the event he loses his premiership.

One possible replacement stood out. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who is also the PPRP leader, has been touted by the Setthakij Thai Party as the best fit as Gen Prayut’s successor.

Setthakij Thai, ironically, is home to MPs previously purged by the PPRP for acting as renegades. However, the party secretary-general, Capt Thamanat Prompow, retains steadfast loyalty to Gen Prawit although he was accused as the chief plotter in last year’s censure debate revolt against Gen Prayut. At the time, Capt Thamanat was the PPRP secretary-general and seen as Gen Prawit’s right-hand man.

A few weeks ago, the political mercury was sent surging by former Democrat Party deputy leader, Trairong Suwannakhiri, who said some MPs may be bankrolled for up to 30 million baht each to vote against Gen Prayut in the next no-confidence debate.

The votes that could spell the government’s demise could come from the 21 Setthakij Thai MPs and the group of 16 MPs (Group 16) comprising mostly small parties, headed by MP Pichet Sathirachawal who belongs to the PPRP.

However, a political source doubts whether Group 16, which counts among its members Kathathep Techaruengkul from the Puea Chat Thai Party, Peerawit Ruengluedollapak from the Thai Rak Tham Party and Damrong Pidech from the Forest Conservation Party, has indeed amassed 16 lawmakers.

It is believed the PPRP could harbour some renegade lawmakers who are quietly waiting for the “right” opportunity to vote against the prime minister.

Water snare

The small parties have vowed to zero in on one issue in the censure debate expected to take place in July. That is the bidding for a concession to operate the main water transmission pipeline system for the government’s flagship Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC).

Pheu Thai alleged the terms of reference for the bidding had been tweaked in favour of a winning bidder at the expense of the state.

On March 14, the Treasury Department named Vongsayam Korsang Co as the winning bidder of its concession to manage and operate the pipeline system with a quote of 25.6 billion baht. Eastern Water Resources Development and Management Public Co, or East Water, has held the concession since 1994.

The department called for a new round of bidding ahead of the concession’s expiration in 2023. The new concession has a term of 30 years.

Both Vongsayam and East Water bid in both the first and second rounds of the auction for the new concession.

Vongsayam won the bid in the second round, as the first round was revoked because of incomplete bidding terms of reference for the contract.

East Water petitioned the Central Administrative Court to seek an interim injunction after the Treasury Department scrapped the first round of bidding. However, the court dismissed the request.

Gen Prayut chairs the EEC board. The small parties, which deemed Vongsayam’s winning the bid as not above-board, threatened to vote against Gen Prayut in the no-confidence debate if he was unable to clear up doubts in the tender process.

Mr Pichet, meanwhile, said that despite the water transmission pipeline project being put on hold pending a transparency probe ordered by Gen Prayut, the project would have been a done deal if it had not been for the intensifying political pressure over the issue.

He said Capt Thamanat would join the opposition ranks in discussing censure issues, signalling he might take part in grilling Gen Prayut in the no-confidence debate.

Mr Pichet said the labour union of the Provincial Waterworks Authority (PWA) was up in arms against awarding the concession to Vongsayam.

“It’s akin to trampling on your own coffers by letting a private firm take over the [water pipeline system] when East Water is majority-owned by a state enterprise,” he said, referring to the PWA. He said the project should be open to more bidders who are experienced in water transmission work. That way, the government might earn more from the concession.

Small parties wait and see

He said the Group 16 needs to study the opposition’s censure information on the project and other no-confidence allegations and listen to the government’s rebuttals before deciding how it will vote in the censure debate.

“I work with the opposition and we look for any damage caused by state projects. This will compel the next government to be careful when they formulate projects and policies,” he said.

However, Mr Pichet admitted it would be a daunting task driving Gen Prayut out of office.

The small parties need Gen Prayut to stay in power: “We need the bill processed in parliament so we can use it to canvass for votes,” he said.

Pai Lik, a Setthakij Thai MP for Kamphaeng Phet, argued Gen Prawit would make an ideal successor to Gen Prayut, given his respectability, finesse and ability to span the political divide. However, he stopped short of speculating on Gen Prawit’s chances of taking over the job.

Commenting on Gen Prayut’s tenure, he said the matter must be left to the Constitutional Court to decide. Pheu Thai believes his eight-year term expires in August since he will have served two, four-year terms back to back following the coup.

As for the budget expenditure bill, Mr Pai said it should not be cited as a chip to bargain for political favours as people are counting on the bill to be passed to alleviate the economic hardship from the protracted Covid-19 pandemic.

Setthakij Thai would wait and see how the censure debate pans out.

“We haven’t seen the opposition’s censure information yet. But we’ll be keeping scores,” the MP said.

Uphill task

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University, told the Bangkok Post it would be an uphill battle trying to unseat Gen Prayut.

Opponents’ intentions may be to sustain their attacks on the premier so he will be left bruised and battered and emerge a “defective” prime ministerial candidate in the next polls.

Even the political cliques close to Gen Prayut, Gen Prawit and Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paojinda — the three generals bound by fraternal ties — might feel they were deficient in bargaining power with Gen Prayut as prime minister.

“Capt Thamanat has been supportive of Gen Prawit as a new prime minister without mentioning Gen Prayut. He knows he could do business better with Gen Prawit,” the academic said.

Gen Prawit, according to Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam who is also a legal expert, would become interim prime minister upon Gen Prayut vacating office before the expiry of his premiership. However, some thought he might also make the cut as prime minister outside the “reserve” list of prime ministerial candidates drawn up at the previous elections in 2019.

Mr Wanwichit agreed Gen Prawit has the skill to coordinate with political elements, which Gen Prayut lacks.

He dismissed claims that MPs were being bought to bring down Gen Prayut in the censure debate. He insisted no one would want to spend a huge some money toppling a government with barely 10 months left of its tenure.

A more logical explanation was that some government members started the MP bankrolling allegation in the hope it would lead to a cabinet reshuffle where they might be offered seats.

Government lawmakers, including those backing Gen Prayut, who anticipate a post-censure debate cabinet reshuffle, are not certain such changes will materialise.

“That is why the talks about the prime minister in reserve and interim minister have gained traction,” he said, referring to some MPs’ wish to have a new PM who can “clear the deck” and bring fresh changes.

He said the government will likely survive the no-confidence debate. It appears more interested in how many votes of confidence Gen Prayut will walk away with. “It has to do with saving face more than anything else,” he said.

“Gen Prayut looks rather certain to sidestep the quagmire,” particularly as Gen Prawit would lose face if he did not lobby for confidence votes for the PM, he said.

The “PM in reserve” talks might be tactical as it has diverted public attention from the economic issue.

Yutthaporn Isarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said the option of getting a prime minister from outside the reserve list would be incredibly difficult to realise. More than half the 750 members of both Houses would be needed to agree to switch to voting for someone outside the list; then there’s the vote for a prime ministerial candidate, which requires at least two-thirds of parliamentarians or 500 of them.

The opposition has much planning and prioritising to do. It will want the budget bill enacted first as it also benefits from state funds being disbursed to their constituencies, he said.

The opposition could seek a court ruling over the prime minister’s tenure before filing the censure debate.

Even if the ruling came out in Gen Prayut’s favour, it would disappoint many government opponents in parliament which would turn up political pressure on the premier. After that, the opposition would file its censure motion against the government for best leverage, Mr Yutthaporn said.