When Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ran for a second term, he did so with the slogan ‘munkong, mungkung, yungyuen‘ — stability, prosperity, sustainability.
Three months after the election, his government looks neither stable nor sustainable. Instead, it reminds us of British prime minister Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ image that proceeded to produce the weakest and wobbliest UK government in living memory.
To be sure, a new parliament has been seated. A new prime minister has been voted upon and sworn in — that is, the same prime minister. But that prime minister is heading the same government that he has headed for years before the election.
Where, then, is Prayut’s new government?
There are justifications, of course. Prayut has been busy preparing for and presiding over a relatively successful ASEAN summit. But it should still be deeply troubling to all of us that Prayut has yet been unable to have new cabinet ministers ready to work. After all, if he is having this much trouble even setting up a government, how is he supposed to govern?
The issue lies with the ruling Palang Pracharath party. The PPRP is known by some Thais as ‘phuk chapor kij’ (a single mission party). It follows a grand tradition of parties in Thailand that have been formed as a vehicle for their leaders’ political ambitions, usually to dissolve after their founders exit the political stage. This means that these parties tend to be purely opportunistic and contain no underlying ideology.
This is extremely visible with Palang Pracharath, which was set up primarily to return Prayut to the premiership. The party has won the hearts and minds of many voters who dislike Thaksin and see Prayut as their best chance of stopping Pheu Thai from returning to power.
Many of these voters do not realize, or willfully ignore, however, the fact that the PPRP candidates that they voted for are hardly loyal to Prayut. Instead, many of the MPs were former Pheu Thai members that defected to the PPRP. Take Veerakorn Kumprakob, for example. One of the PPRP’s loudest voices in parliament, he was a former Thaksinite. Or ‘Rambo Isaan’, a red shirt leader widely reviled by the anti-Thaksin side, who switched sides to the PPRP but then lost election.
These are not ideological politicians. They are, to borrow a Thai phrase, a cobra. As defined by Prachathai:
Ngu hao or ‘cobra’ in Thai political culture means renegade politicians who betray their colleagues or the trust of people who elected them, in order to reap the benefits from joining a government coalition.Prachathai
The PPRP’s opportunistic defectors have indeed been vocal. The Isaan faction of the PPRP declared at one point that “We suggest that the Northeast’s candidates be given administrative positions. If not, we will need to reconsider our involvement with the party.”
The blame must also be assigned to Palang Pracharath-led government’s fractious 19-party alliance. Kingmakers such as the Democrat and Bhumjaithai party have driven a hard bargain for cabinet seats. Both of these parties betrayed their election promises to join the PPRP coalition, and thus expect to be rewarded with lucrative cabinet seats, infuriating PPRP members that were previously promised them.
Prayut has also had to deal with a diverse grouping of 1-seat parties whose loyalties are hardly cemented. Were he to lose even a few parties, his government’s lower house majority would disappear and he would find it impossible to pass legislation.
In summation, Prayut’s second term has begun on extremely shaky footing. His government may indeed finish a four year term — constitutional mechanisms can guarantee it if he so wishes — but he will have a difficult time to pass legislation or get anything done given his squabbling alliance. This will be detrimental to Thailand as the economy continues to lag.
But what can we say? As the prime minister has said, “there are only 35 places in the cabinet” (emphasis mine) and supply exceeds demand. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars — but in our own opportunistic politicians.