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Will the Thai Prime Minister survive the Pandemic?

23 Sep 2021
By Shaun Cameron
H.E. General Prayut Chan O Cha, Prime Minister, Kingdom Of Thailand. Source: World Travel and Tourism Council

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha faces ongoing public protests, poor approval ratings, and a third wave of COVID-19 that has battered the country since April. If the government is unable to ease restrictions and open for travel in October, Prayut may not have the option to remain in office.

On the banks of the river that flows through the Thai capital of Bangkok sits the largest Parliament in the world. The 424,000-square-metre building lies nestled amongst numerous military unit headquarters, and despite having seen limited use since its opening in May 2021, the Parliament remains unfinished. Construction lies abandoned since its unveiling coincided with Thailand’s third and most devastating wave of COVID-19, along with renewed protests calling for the resignation of its prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-Cha.

The most recent anti-government protests began in 2019, after the Prayut government was reinstated following the first election held since it seized power in 2014. Dissent continued throughout 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 20,000 protesters converging on Bangkok and smaller gatherings occurring across the majority of the other 76 Thai provinces. In 2021, demonstrations have focused on the government’s handling of vaccines.    Prayut’s approval rating has fallen from 93.3 percent post-coup to 57 percent in 2018. It now sits at  19 percent. In September 2021, a survey of the public found that the majority of participants believed Prayut would not remain as prime minister after the next election. Protests, public approval ratings, and rising COVID-19 numbers are unlikely to push resignation on a prime minister who is comfortable in declining to swear allegiance to the Constitution as a part of his oath of office or spraying reporters with sanitiser when growing tired of their questions.But the views of the Thai elite might.

In 2021 a minor royal publicly criticised Prayut, while a princess and sister of the king circumvented the government to import vaccines for public –use, leading to speculation over whether the prime minister and the government could manage the pandemic. The king ostensibly refrains from interfering in political affairs, but the royal family still holds significant influence within politics, the military, and for ordinary Thai’s. Royal actions that question government effectiveness would only add to Prayut’s woes.

Stability and a working economy are key for Prayut to retain support. If the COVID-19 lockdowns keeping borders, businesses, and factories closed can be eased, then he may have a chance to retain power. The government has a plan to relax conditions and allow international visitors in October, although average daily infections have reached nearly 15,000, and the vaccination rate is under 30 percent. If Prayut’s gamble does not lead to success, or leads to another outbreak, then he may face increased pressure to step down.

The main question surrounding succession is who could replace Prayut? A rising opposition party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court, with its leader banned from politics for ten years after the 2019 election. The Thai Constitution further solidifies Prayut’s position, whereby there is no mechanism for the 500-member House of Representatives to choose a leader of its own initiative. To do so, it must work with the 250-member senate made up of unelected members selected by the government. Additional clauses make it very hard to replace the current prime minister, and Parliament only has a choice of five nominees, other than Prayut, from the four ruling coalition political parties if a caretaker prime minister was required until elections.

From these five, most nominees are unknown other than former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who lost his party position in the 2019 elections when he was defeated by Prayut, and current Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who has already taken most of the blame for mismanaged vaccine rollouts. Other key political players are also likely out of contention. Another Deputy Prime Minister, Prawit Wongsuwon, has a history of expensive gifts and is generally seen as Prayut’s “right-hand man.” He may be on the outside of Prayut’s strategy after he was not consulted over the recent removal of two ministers reported to have been part of a plot to oust the prime minister during a recent no-confidence vote in Parliament, which Anutin also survived. One of those removed was Thamanat Prompow, who was known as a political fixer and close to Prawit, and is relatively infamous for having spent time in an Australian prison. The Thai people lack hope for capable, legitimate leadership, believing that “nobody” was suitable for the post of prime minister, according to recent polls.

One other possibility for a change of leadership is by military coup. Thailand has experienced 11 successful military coups since constitutionalism replaced absolute monarchy in 1932, and conditions may be ripe for a putsch with ongoing protests and low public support for the government. The economy was also reported as going into its first deficit since 2013 – the same economic conditions that spurred the coup that brought Prayut to power –  although growth is now expected with the reopening of the country. The prime minister lost his choice of commander of the army when the king selected his favourite,  the royalist General Narongphan Jitkaewthae, over Prayut’s recommendation. The king has also taken personal command over military units with bases in Bangkok that have been used to stage coups in the past, including a battalion whose headquarters are directly opposite the current Parliament.

This consolidation means that the monarch has control over if and how a military coup could take place. He also has control over the forces Prayut would use to defend himself. A coup seems the least desirable scenario for all concerned, given the resulting instability it would lead to. As such, it is likely that if the prime minister must relinquish his position without consent, he will be given the chance to do so peacefully and as a part of the process to avoid forcible removal.

Prayut’s future is hard to foretell, particularly in the current pandemic and its resulting uncertainty. The political, business, and military elite likely desire stability and security. If the Prayut government cannot deliver, they will look to a new leader. This competition may not come from within Parliament, so if Prayut cannot weather the storm of COVID-19 and its effects on Thailand, the alternative is a contest from the military, with the caveat of royal support, and a return to the ongoing cycle of coups and elections that has become idiosyncratic to the Thai political environment.

Shaun Cameron is a postgraduate student in international relations at Curtin University. He is currently working in Asia, and has a background in academic research, teaching, and psychology.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.