Analysis: PM’s move to appoint UTN boss as secretary-general could tip the scales as election nears
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s appointment of Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, leader of the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party, as his new secretary-general is seen by some political pundits as a clear signal that Gen Prayut is determined to compete in the next general election, while also representing a potential game changer in the next polls.
Mr Pirapan’s appointment, endorsed by the cabinet on Tuesday, prompted Cholnan Srikaew, leader of the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, to lambaste the UTN for trying to gain an unfair political advantage over other parties.
He accused Mr Pirapan of intending to abuse his new position to get one up on other parties at the next election and said Gen Prayut was extending his influence over the UTN for political benefit.
Sutin: Prayut not a magnet for MPs
Stithorn Thananithichot, director of research and development at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, viewed the opposition’s furious reaction to Mr Pirapan’s appointment as a warning to both Mr Pirapan and Gen Prayut that their tactics are now as clear as day.
Mr Pirapan’s appointment serves as the clearest sign so far of Gen Prayut’s political ambitions and whether he would join the UTN, said Mr Stithorn.
He said the move could be a game changer as it will suck into the UTN those MPs and former MPs who had previously defected from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), Pheu Thai Party and other parties to the Bhumjaithai Party.
“This clear sign from Gen Prayut will change the UTN from being a micro party that was expected to gain fewer than 25 seats in parliament and wouldn’t even be able to nominate its own prime ministerial candidate,” he said.
Now with Gen Prayut’s shadow cast over the party, it will likely be able to muster at least 40 MPs in the next election, he added.
And if the UTN were to team up with Bhumjaithai, the Democrat and Chartthaipattana parties, as well as other current coalition partners, it could secure at least 250 seats in parliament, which would make the election more interesting, and the competition to form a new government even tighter, Mr Stithorn said.
PPRP MPs who have already defected to the Bhumjaithai Party in preparation for the next polls, particularly those running in Bangkok constituencies where the party has not enjoyed any success to date, will most likely regret the move and shift over to the UTN later, he said.
Mr Stithorn also said Mr Pirapan’s appointment to the de facto No.2 role after the prime minister would benefit the UTN as state mechanisms such as the Interior Ministry will be exploited to gain political advantage ahead of the election, expected in May of next year.
The ministry, headed by Gen Anupong Paojinda, one of Gen Prayut’s close associates, holds sway over all regional and provincial administrative agencies that are ready to follow its instructions, Mr Stithorn said.
“This move by Big Tu [Gen Prayut] was prudent, and it shows his political competence,” he said.
With the UTN leader now his secretary-general, the premier will become the de facto leader of the party and cement his command through its “politburo”, he said.
Apart from becoming more attractive to future election candidates, the UTN will also now have more appeal to major groups supplying funds to parties expected to win the election, he added.
Deputy Pheu Thai leader Sutin Klungsang, meanwhile, said he doesn’t believe Gen Prayut will be a magnet for MPs who have already moved to Bhumjaithai.
He disagreed with the idea that Gen Prayut would attract more funding for the UTN, saying there are more factors that will determine the results of the upcoming election, and those financiers would take all factors into consideration before deciding which party to support.