Since his introduction as Thailand’s deputy minister of agriculture and cooperatives in 2019, Capt. Thammanat Prompao’s name has been linked to a series of controversies, be it his questionable education credentials or mafia-like background. His 1994 drug trafficking conviction in Australia, in particular, has made international headlines. Despite public disapproval, Thammanat managed to retain his deputy minister status and became the secretary-general of the ruling Phalang Pracharat Party (PPRP) in mid-2021. His glory days were short-lived as he was sacked from both positions early this year. Still, as a skilled and well-connected power broker, Thammanat remains a formidable force in Thailand’s political arena.
Although Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha technically has no party of his own, he has been backed by the PPRP – the so-called “junta party” – designed to keep him and other military elites in power in order to guard against “political disruptions.” It is no secret that the PPRP contains numerous factions, ranging from military officers and regional strongmen to defected politicians and technocrats. Unsurprisingly, then, the PPRP has been dominated by intense intra-party bargaining.
One of the most influential factions, featuring MPs from Upper Northern Thailand, was headed by Thammanat Prompao. Thammanat’s political career began in 1999 as a member of the Thai Rak Thai Party, the forerunner of the current opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP), but he only won a parliamentary seat for the first time in March 2019 as a PPRP candidate. As a man who successfully persuaded 11 small parties to join the governing coalition, thereby gaining a slim parliamentary majority to support Prayut’s rule, Thammanat became known as an influential powerbroker. He also rose as a trusted lieutenant of PPRP leader and Prayut’s brother-in-arms, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan.
The power balancing within the PPRP tilted in favor of Thammanat’s group following the resignation of the “four boys” camp, which consisted of four technocrats who occupied key ministerial posts, including the energy and finance portfolios, in mid-2020. Thammanat, seeking to become a minister rather than a deputy, has been demanding extra cabinet slots for himself and his allies. Nevertheless, his efforts have been blocked by Prime Minister Prayut.
The rift between Prayut and Thammanat came to public attention last September when Thammanat was suspected to be lobbying MPs to vote against Prayut at the parliamentary no-confidence debate. Prayut survived the vote and abruptly removed Thammanat, together with his ally Narumon Pinyosinwat, from the cabinet, seemingly without prior discussions with Gen. Prawit, fueling rumors of a “break-up” between the two generals.
An even more shocking blow hit last month when PPRP executives stripped Thammanat of his secretary-general role and kicked him, along with 20 other MPs under his control, out of the party. The mysterious “purge” of the Thammanat faction has been subjected to various interpretations. Some say Thammanat has lost Prawit’s favor, especially after his failed campaign in the recent by-elections in southern provinces. Thammanat’s insensitive remarks, in which he encouraged people in Songkhla province to vote for “rich and privileged candidates,” played into the hands of the competing Democrat Party – the South’s traditional champion, which suffered a disastrous defeat in the last general election – and drove Southerners away from the PPRP.
Others, however, believe that pre-arrangements have been made, presumably with Prawit’s knowledge. This explains why Thammanat and 17 MPs from his group proceeded to join the Setthakij Thai Party (Thai Economic Party) almost immediately after the PPRP expulsion. Following this line of argument, Thammanat remains Prawit’s right-hand-man, but has had to be “punished” for the sake of the PPRP’s brand. Thammanat’s deteriorating relations with Prayut, perhaps more than his by-elections drama, have hurt the party’s support base. As some political watchers insist, Prayut has a good number of supporters who have been annoyed with Thammanat’s arrogance and may have started boycotting the PPRP. Some fans have even urged Prayut to form his own party, which would put him in a direct competition with Prawit.
Whatever the reason behind the expulsion, observers seem to agree that Thammanat has not been placed in a disadvantaged position and will continue to play a pivotal role in the parliament. If all 20 expelled MPs join Thammanat in his new party and become part of the governing coalition, the party is systemically guaranteed to get at least two ministry seats. Besides, without the PPRP mandate, Thammanat has more freedom of maneuver.
One obstacle in Thammanat’s way is the Election Commission’s ruling on the legality of the Thammanat faction’s departure from the PPRP. If ruled illegal, Thammanat and friends who have joined the new party would be stuck in an awkward position with a dual party membership, which could consequently result in the loss of their MP status altogether. But, so far, the legal process appears to favor Thammanat’s group. They will probably dodge the bullet.
Thammanat will most likely continue to publicly support the PPRP and Prayut’s premiership while continuing to make behind-the-scenes demands. If things don’t go his way, he will declare an all-out war against Prayut. He could step up the lobbying efforts within the coalition and join forces with opposition parties, particularly the PTP, to oust Prayut at the next no-confidence debate. Indeed, for Prayut, Thammanat looms as a dangerous ticking time bomb.