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Signals point to an early election in Thailand

When Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered his Cabinet last week to speed up implementation of public projects as the government only had one year left in office, many saw it as a countdown to dissolution of Parliament.

And there are other signals that Prayut may be planning to call an early election before his term ends in 2023.

First, the Bt3.1-billion budget bill for fiscal 2022passed its first reading with overwhelming support from coalition parties, despite criticism of budget allocations from some Bhumjaithai and Democrat MPs. The bill must now pass second and third readings expected in August before going for Senate and Royal endorsement.

The budget will deliver a massive injection of money to the economy, driving it out of the COVID-19 crisis while also boosting the government’s popularity before the next election.

All eyes on party reshuffle

Second, the ruling Palang Pracharath Party is set to reshuffle its executive committee at its general meeting in Khon Kaen province next week (June18), with the focus on the secretary-general’s post currently held by PM’s Office Minister Anucha Nakasai.

Party leader Prawit Wongsuwan reportedly wants the post to go to Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thammanat Prompow, who is also deputy party leader.

Thammanat has won the trust and backing of “Big Brother” Prawit, who apparently believes his protégé will help the party win the next election thanks to his many connections and allies.

The Phayao MP survived a court ruling in May over his eligibility for office in light of his 1994heroin smuggling conviction in Australia, for which he spent four years in jail.

Prawit, who is also deputy PM, has reportedly instructed party MPs to prepare for an election – possibly next year though without setting a specific date.

Coalition partners Democrat and Bhumjaithai are also thought to be gearing up for an election.

Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul said recently that he was unconcerned about House dissolution since his party was always ready to contest a poll.

“As party leader, I ask my MPs every day if they’ve visited their supporters in our political strongholds,” Anutin said last week.

Democrat leader Jurin Laksanawisit, meanwhile, said recently his party had made great progress in recruiting election candidates for more than 20constituencies in Bangkok and nearly 50 in the South.

Tinkering with electoral system

Third, Palang Pracharath in April submitted a charter amendment draft covering five points and 13 articles of the Constitution. It includes changes to the electoral system that would benefit the ruling party.

The current mixed-member apportionment (MMA) electoral system – where a single ballot is used to cast votes for constituency candidates and to calculate party seats – has been slammed for favouring small and medium-sized parties at the expense of larger ones. Palang Pracharath wants to change this to two separate ballots – one for the 400 constituency MPs and the other for 100 party-list MPs.

Other parties, including Bhumjaithai, Democrats, Pheu Thai and Kao Klai, will submit their own draft amendments this week. Parliament is expected to deliberate on them later this month.

According to Palang Pracharath deputy leader Paiboon Nititawan, the entire process of charter amendment and drafting of organic laws should be completed by next May – a timeline which matches Prayut’s ultimatum to his Cabinet.

Insurance for political ‘accident’

These three developments, coupled with Prayut’s directive, signal that the ruling party is preparing for an early election in case a political “accident” occurs, say observers. In other words, the party is manoeuvring events to its advantage in order to pave the way for victory.

The Prayut government is currently facing a barrage of attacks from critics and political rivals as Thailand suffers its third and worst wave of COVID-19, which erupted in early April. Opposition politicians and critics have blamed the soaring number of deaths and cases on mismanagement, poor communication, slow vaccine rollout and a shortage of jabs.

Moreover, conflicts between coalition partners could see the government collapse before its term ends.

MPs from Bhumjaithai Party are upset that their leader and Public Health Minister Anutin has been overshadowed by Prayut’s “single-command” style during the COVID-19 outbreak.

One-year countdown?

However, speculation about an early election was brushed aside by Prawit, who said last week that the government has yet to complete its full 4-year term. However, he failed to come up with a convincing answer on whether the government could achieve that mission.

“I alone cannot decide. Future situations must be decided by several parties,” he said.

Prayut cannot call an election until his government has regained public trust and support, say observers. Otherwise, he is bound to lose.

Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, believes the chance of an early election is slim, despite pressure on the government over the COVID-19 crisis and economic fallout.

“Street rallies cannot be held as protest leaders are facing charges that stop them from organising gatherings. The soonest they can return to the streets would be around early next year,” Yuthaporn said.

Anti-establishment protesters were a growing force of opposition to the government until arrests and COVID restrictions derailed their uprising at the end of last year.

Last month, some protest leaders were finally granted bail after weeks or months in pre-trial detention on charges of insulting the monarchy. The protesters were released on condition they refrain from activities that damage the monarchy and create unrest.

Yuthaporn believes Prayut was merely spurring his ministers on, not signalling early dissolution of the House.

The analyst expects the PM to reshuffle his Cabinet in July, when the government completes two years in office.

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said Prayut’s remark was likely aimed at distracting public attention from his government’s failure to resolve the virus crisis, but appointing Thammanat as party secretary-general would signal preparations for an early poll were underway.

“Prayut has set next June as the deadline [for ministers to deliver government projects]. The question is why is he not waiting for one more year to complete his government’s term [in 2023],” Wanwichit asked.

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS)

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