Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, July 16, 2019. Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

BANGKOK – On one front, a student protest movement that once looked like an existential threat to the brass and crown has been squeezed and tamed into political submission.

On another, outrage over the government’s perceived as corrupt bumbling in procuring sufficient Covid-19 vaccines has waned as the kingdom enters a vaccinated immunity sweet spot and the economy starts to revive.

On yet another, a power play that pitted the ruling Palang Pracharat Party’s (PPRP) power broker against the premier was uprooted and put down, reaffirming his grip on the conservative party and its rank and file politicians.

From crisis to crisis, Thailand’s perennially embattled ex-soldier Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has taken on all challengers and, while often sliced and bruised in the cut and thrust, has defied persistent predictions of his imminent demise.

In September, the Eurasia Group predicted with 35% statistical certainty that Prayut would be “removed”, including via a possible coup, by year’s end – a scenario that would require royal backing. The risk consultancy then put “significant odds” on the premier’s ouster.

Fast forward to near year-end, Prayut is flexing his staying power and staying put for the foreseeable future as he aims to leverage fast-falling Covid cases, a reviving economy and next year’s APEC summit in Bangkok to his political advantage ahead of 2023 polls.

A third Prayut government is starting to look increasingly possible if not likely with electoral law changes and a still-present military-appointed Senate with a kingmaker role in picking the prime minister that will privilege he and PPRP to retain power at the next polls.

The electoral changes will favor big parties over small and are expected to make the next election a de facto two-horse race between PPRP and Peua Thai, coup-ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his clan’s aligned party.

That will come to the intentional detriment of the Move Forward Party, the new incarnation of the Future Forward whose youth-favored and monarchy-challenging banned leader Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit seems destined to remain on the political margins for the foreseeable future after a strong 2019 electoral showing.   

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the former Future Forward Party, has been banned from politics. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwanrumpha

Prayut has repeatedly said he will serve out his full four-year term, which his advocates say will buy him time to revive the economy, build PPRP’s grassroots machinery, poach other parties’ politicians and shape his legacy as an elected rather than coup leader – though much of his current tenure has come under Covid-19 emergency rule.

One well-placed government source says Prayut is intent on presiding over next November’s APEC summit in Bangkok, where world leaders including US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are already being tipped to attend personally rather than virtually, to showcase Thailand’s successful reopening to the world.

It was lost on few that Thailand was disinvited to Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” confab last week, despite holding elections after a five-year period under Prayut’s military coup-installed rule.

But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit this week to Bangkok, following soon on CIA deputy director David Cohen’s closed door meeting with Prayut on November 20, shows the kingdom is still very much on the US’ geostrategic radar, a political reality his government is keen to leverage at the outbreak of what some see as a New Cold War.     

While the ex-army commander’s legacy as a democratic leader is very much in doubt with student leaders behind bars, a new rash of draconian anti-royal charges filed against crown critics and still-strong military influence inside his government, his record as an adroit if not ruthless political operator is certain.

Prayut has presided over a string of political purges that have ousted various of his one-time supporters, first a faction of technocrats who established PPRP and then a surprise severance with the Palang Pracharat Party, born of the PDRC “Shutdown Bangkok” street protest group that softened the ground for Prayut’s 2014 coup.

Those moves have come from a position of strength, not weakness, and underscored the premier’s enduring mistrust of the machine politicians he toppled in 2014 and pilloried as corrupt in frequent TV addresses during his coup regime but reluctantly joined forces with in the 2019 transition from military to elected rule.   

At the same time, chattering class speculation that Prayut had fallen afoul of the wider conservative elite establishment, including the kingdom’s top “five family” businesses and King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s royal palace, supposedly over his handling of Covid-19 and student street protests is likely well off the mark.

His government has protected but not overly cosseted the five families – namely the founding clans behind the CP Group, ThaiBev, Boonrawd, King Power and Central Group – through handout, health and debt moratorium policies that have privileged certain but not all of their sprawling interests.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is flanked by CP Group chairman Dhanin Chearavanont (2nd R) and ThaiBev founder billionaire Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi (L) at Government House in a file photo. Photo: AFP Forum / Chanat Katanyu

King Vajiralongkorn, who remained resident in the kingdom during the historic protests that some thought could reach a tipping point if demonstrators converged on his personal palace, recently returned to his residence in Germany with the once-threatening movement subdued without bloodshed under Prayut’s watch.  

How ordinary Thais perceive the generosity of Prayut’s “khon la kreung” (half per person) Covid relief policy, where the state picks up half the tab at markets, street stalls and restaurants capped daily at 300 baht (US$9), and row tiew duaygahn (we travel together) Covid-era tourism promotion, where the government pays traveling Thais’ hotel bills, is a popularity wildcard.

PPRP’s future pandemic relief policies, not least a proposed credit card scheme for farmers, are being rolled out with elections in mind. Those include a financial assistance program for ailing businesses with a nationalistic twist, with Thai language media including morning radio slots vowing to keep distressed local assets in Thai, not foreign (spelled Chinese), hands.

The hard-hit hotel sector, in particular, has called for Prayut’s government’s help to fend off foreign buyouts, with the head of a Pattaya hotel association calling for emergency state assistance in a local media interview to hold off perceived as circling Chinese vulture buyers.  

The appeal to economic nationalism to win popular support peels a page from Thaksin’s playbook, whose original “Thais love Thais” party won power in 2001 more on a save the nation from foreign (then spelled Western) buyouts campaign after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis than the pro-poor messaging his party later adopted.  

Two decades since his first poll win, the criminally-convicted Thaksin is, as ever, bidding to stay politically relevant from self-exile. Now out of power for over seven years since the 2014 coup, his Peua Thai has not particularly distinguished itself during the pandemic.

Moreover, the party’s “change agent” credentials have aged with Thaksin, now 72, despite his odd adoption of a “Tony Woodsome” online persona and invitation-only Clubhouse forum chats where he often criticizes Prayut and his government but critics say has seldom put forth novel prescriptions or original, actionable ideas.  

Instead, Thaksin has hinted Peua Thai may front his political novice 39-year-old daughter, Pinthongta Shinawatra Kunakornwong, as a next youthful prime minister candidate. But it’s not clear third time will necessarily be a charm for the clan after his sister Yingluck Shinawatra’s surprise candidacy and resounding election win in 2011.

Pinthongta’s Instagram reel is more cosmopolitan elite, replete with Covid-era luxurious yacht shots, than grass roots Issan, the poor and populous rural northeastern region where Thaksin-aligned parties have consistently carried the vote, though recently by a declining margin.  

Analysts and diplomats believe Peua Thai must win outright the next election to stay whole amid persistent reports PPRP is bidding to poach with money the party’s politicians, particularly those with established brand names in the north and northeast. PPRP won the popular vote vis-a-vis Peua Thai 8.4 million to 7.9 million in 2019.

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra with his daughter Pinthongta. Photo: Handout

Thaksin could yet have a few cards up his political sleeve and may play them aggressively if he senses he will never receive a royal pardon that would allow him to return to the kingdom from exile as a free man, as some had earlier speculated Vajiralongkorn might grant the coup-ousted ex-leader in the name of national reconciliation.  

A more deliberate Thaksin nod towards the student movement, which his Red Shirt pressure group shared a protest stage with on September 19, 2020, – the anniversary of the 2006 coup – where especially incendiary anti-royal rally cries were aired, could indicate the populist politician who once called from exile for his own “people’s revolution” in 2009 is again willing to go for broke.

Possibly in that direction, Thaksin recently flip-flopped his royal position in voicing support for amending the application of the lese majeste law, which allows for maximum 15-year prison sentences for royal criticism.

Calls to amend or abolish the law are a leitmotif among student leaders, some of whom are currently languishing behind bars under the harsh law. But by more overtly aligning with royal reform calls, Thaksin risks alienating many in his base that loath Prayut but not the monarchy.  

At the same time, it’s still not clear that Prayut’s slow but tight squeeze of the student movement will necessarily cost PPRP at the ballot box, as most Thais have been more focused on economic relief than ideological debate amid the pandemic and its debilitating lockdowns.

While colorful student protests have captured global media attention and galvanized Thai youth seeking change, calls for royal reform and radical transformation of Thailand’s hierarchical society likely resonates less with the kingdom’s quiet majority grey demographic.

What is clear is that Prayut is defining his legacy more as a defender of the crown than custodian of democracy.

Earlier speculation that the premier may have fallen out of favor with the new palace overlooked the ex-soldier’s key role in steering the delicate and sensitive succession from the long-reigning and widely respected King Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn.

Protesters sit beside a portrait of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn during an anti-government rally by pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok on October 14, 2020. Photo: AFP / Mladen Antonov

Observers wonder if Prayut, 67, eventually eyes stepping away from the premiership to head the royal advisory Privy Council, where now-deceased ex-premier and army commander Prem Tinsulanonda forged a formidable, autonomous royal power center with parallels to the ancient upatham, or vice king, palace tradition.  

While Prayut’s royalist credentials are beyond reproach, including as a loyal servant to both the new king and before that the queen mother, it’s not clear yet if he foresees playing a similar Prem-like role or instead will prefer to fade from the political scene in his autumn years.

Prem served as elected premier from 1980-88, an eight-year tenure known as “Premocracy” for its military-steered democratic politics that Prayut has clearly sought to emulate and will match at least in duration next year and surpass if he serves his full term through mid-2023.

By all accounts, the Privy Council has become less influential and autonomous under the new reign, meaning for now Prayut is likely better placed to protect and promote the royal institution and its longevity from Government House than the Privy Council Chambers.   

While student protests, pandemic ills and factional infighting have all taken a toll on Prayut’s standing and stature, his staying power is by now undeniable, leading some to speculate he may be around long enough to steer not just one sensitive royal succession but possibly two.