Infighting within Thailand’s new government prompts PM Prayuth Chan-ocha to warn against internal coup

The back door deals within the coalition that helped the premier transition from military chief to civilian leader have erupted into internal squabbling. Prayuth has apologised to the public for a delay in forming government, and analysts say the wait will negatively affect the kingdom’s economy.

(SCMP) – As jockeying for cabinet positions raged inside the political coalition that helped Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha win the March election, the new leader this week apologised to the public for the delay in forming government, and included what many saw as a veiled warning of an internal coup.

“I hope that everything will move forward to respond to people’s needs as the government of all Thais. This will be a beginning for a political reform by the government and its coalition so that politics will not get back to its old problem that might require the old, unwanted solution,” said a Monday statement by Prayuth.

The use of the phrase “old, unwanted solution” was interpreted as a reference to the May 2014 military coup led by Prayuth, then army chief, to end months of street protests and political gridlock.

Opposition parties were quick to condemn the comment as a threat. Pheu Thai spokeswoman Sunisa Lertpakawat asked: “Is he threatening the people that he will order the armed forces to seize power if he cannot endure political unrest?”

What the statement does confirm is the tumult within Prayuth’s inner political circle, which has led to a delay in the formation of the new cabinet and talk of a split within his political vehicle, the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party.

The infighting is being fuelled by an influential faction of three battle-hardy politicians known as the “three friends”, who are upset at how their “quota” in the cabinet has been reduced. The three men were once high-profile stalwarts of the Thai Rak Thai, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s party that won the 2001 election.

Earlier this week, the faction – which controls 30 members of parliament among Palang Pracharat’s 116 MPs – demanded the resignation of secretary general Sonthirat Sonthijirawong, saying he was bad at managing relationships within the party.

The demand reportedly rose from indications Sonthirat would become energy minister, a post said to have been earlier promised to Suriya Juangroongruangkit, one of the “three friends”. Sonthirat this week said he would not take up the post.

One of the other “three friends” leaders, Somsak Thepsuthin, was previously reported to have secured the position of agriculture minister – but a local news website this week reported that new Democrat party leader Jurin Laksanawisit would get the job instead, leaving Somsak with a post at the justice ministry.

The “three friends” played a significant role in Palang Pracharat’s election win, which eventually saw Prayuth receive 251 votes from MPs in June’s prime ministerial vote. His opponent, political newcomer and Suriya’s nephew Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, won 244 votes.

Prayuth’s position as premier was secured by the junta-appointed 250-seat Senate, which gave him 249 more votes – the missing one was due to the abstention of a member.

The drama this week is seen as the climax of the back door deals that went on as Prayuth and veteran politicians cooperated under the Palang Pracharat banner to ensure the retired army general’s smooth transition from coup leader to a civilian prime minister via the election.

Prayuth on Wednesday said the cabinet list would be ready soon and submitted for royal approval by mid-July.
But analysts say this is the beginning of an unpredictable future for Thai politics, as Prayuth will be governing with a weak coalition government and will lose the absolute ruling power granted to him by Article 265 of the 2017 constitution when the country’s new cabinet is installed.

So while the “three friends” faction may have backed down and admitted Prayuth holds the cards, politicians within the coalition will “increase their negotiations in the future”, said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.

“It depends what Prayuth has to offer them in return,” she said, adding it remained to be seen how he would use “the unity between the government and the army to his advantage”.

Siripan said the Prayuth government would face more pressure from coalition members, particularly when it tried to pass budgets in parliament. This weakness might play into the hands of the opposition, led by the Shinawatra-backed Phue Thai party and the Future Forward Party that is popular with the country’s millennials and was founded by Prayuth’s prime ministerial challenger, Thanathorn.

However, a new election might still be a long way off.

In case these negotiations within the coalition affect parliament’s ability to function, Prayuth as prime minister has the power to dissolve it, but “no one [in the government coalition] wants to see a new election so soon because no one can guarantee the outcome”, Siripan said.

At the very least, the internal Palang Pracharat conflict this week “tarnished the party’s image”, she said. “It shows that the people in power would only negotiate among themselves without regard for the people.”

The delay in forming the new cabinet has also upset others outside the “three friends” faction.

Politician Anutin Charnvirakul, who is part of the government coalition, said last month he would no longer be able to trade positions secured for his faction at the transport, health, and tourism and sports ministries. He said this week he already had plans in store for a new election.

Analysts have said the delay in forming the cabinet would hold back the announcement of the 2020 budget, which would compound slow public spending, see investments withheld and further cloud the outlook for Thailand’s economy.

The country’s export sector has been hit by slowing demand due to the United States-China trade war.

Anusorn Tamajai, former board member of the Bank of Thailand, said: “It will also pose questions as to why the 2017 Constitution and the election cannot result in a new cabinet being formed, which will affect the investment sector and domestic consumption.”