BANGKOK -- Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha survived his third no-confidence vote on Saturday, along with five of his ministers, with critics mostly focused on their poor handling of the country's COVID-19 crisis.
The final tally showed 264 lower house members voting to retain the prime minister, while 208 cast a vote of no-confidence. Three lawmakers abstained.
Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul will also remain in his position for now. There were 269 votes to retain him in office, while 196 legislators voted to remove him. There were 11 abstentions.
The result was no surprise, as the ruling coalition holds a majority in the lower house. The opposition tried to drive a wedge into the ruling coalition. "I would like to ask government MPs to think about their voters," said Sompong Amornvivat, leader of the opposition Pheu Thai Party. "There are elections ahead of us." However, the opposition again failed to unseat Prayuth.
Prayuth has already seen off two censure debates since returning as prime minister after a general election in 2019. The first was in February 2020 and the second a year later. The former army chief originally seized power in 2014, and was spared critical examinations of his performance by parliament during the five years that the national legislative assembly was appointed.
Some political observers have warned, however, that the fractious ruling coalition may not be as monolithic as it was on the two previous occasions.
Others under scrutiny on Saturday were Saksayam Chidchob, the agricultural and cooperatives minister; Transport Minister Chalermchai Sri-on; Labor Minister Suchart Chomclin; and Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn, the digital economy and society minister. They all survived the vote.
The six were grilled by the opposition since Tuesday. Sompong accused Prayuth of being "a power-crazed, arrogant person unsuited to leading the country" in his opening salvo on Tuesday. "Therefore, if we let him continue his leadership, it will lead to more people being infected and losing their lives."
Pheu Thai secretary-general Prasert Chanthararuangthong slammed Prayuth and Anutin on delayed procurement and distribution of vaccines as well as their decision to keep Thailand out of the World Health Organization's COVAX program.
Another opposition lawmaker, Mingkwan Saengsuwan, cited 13 instances of alleged mishandling by the current administration, including vaccine policies.
"COVID-19 and the economy are related, and they are matters of life and death for Thai people," he said. "You should step down and let people who understand the situation resolve it." Mingkwan was leader of the New Economics Party until all his party members defected to the ruling coalition in February 2020.
"The government commits to the utmost effort in addressing the problems of Thai people," said Prayuth. According to the prime minister, Thailand's infection rate has been 1.8% and the fatality rate of those infected about 0.96% -- both lower than the global rates of 2.8% and 2.1% respectively.
Thailand's third wave of COVID-19 has been much the most serious, with the spread accelerated by the delta variant. On Friday, 14,653 new cases were confirmed. That is an improvement on the 20,000 cases reported on the worst days in August, but still remains high and concerning.
As of Aug. 30, only 11.1% of the Thai population had been fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. The proportion is rising, but still trails others in the region. Indonesia and the Philippines had fully vaccinated 13.4% and 11.3% of their respective populations by Aug. 15.
The government is meanwhile trying to salvage the floundering economy. Business lockdown measures that have been in place in the worst affected "red" provinces since the middle of July were largely lifted from Sept. 1 despite the elevated number of cases. The following day, reopened shopping malls remained relatively uncrowded. The government plans to allow in fully-vaccinated international tourists from October.
Surviving the no-confidence vote will not reduce the political pressures on the Prayuth administration. Anti-establishment rallies have sprung back into life in recent months. A large demonstration calling for Prayuth's resignation was staged on Sept 2. at the major Asoke-Sukhumvit intersection in central Bangkok. During August, protesters in cars and motorcycles staged a number of "car mobs" along major thoroughfares.
In the second half of 2020, regular youth-led, anti-establishment rallies were staged to demand the resignation of Prayuth and his cabinet, constitutional amendments with public consultation, and reform of the monarchy under the constitution. The movement ran out of steam in December and January as a result of measures to stem the second wave of COVID-19, and heavy use of the draconian lese-majeste law to arrest key protest leaders.
The administration's handling of the COVID-19 third wave has again brought demands for Prayuth's resignation, and small anti-establishment rallies have occurred on a daily basis.
In the run-up to Saturday's vote, there had been rumors of a political plot involving the ruling Palang Pracharat Party to oust the prime minister. Thamanat Prompow, the party's secretary-general and deputy minister of agriculture and cooperatives, was said to be involved.
Thamanat and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon are closely allied, and both are believed to be unhappy about the present cabinet lineup. Neither have been included in any no-confidence motions, giving rise to suspicion that some kind of deal had been struck with the opposition. Thamanat denied the rumors.
Also trending in the rumor mill was speculation that Prayuth would dissolve parliament or reshuffle his cabinet once the no-confidence motion was behind him.
On Wednesday, the prime minister pushed back. "I confirm that there is no dissolution of the parliament and no cabinet reshuffle," he said, adding that he planned to complete his term on schedule in 2023.
The government's performance has made some lawmakers worry about their reelection prospects in 2023, and that is likely to keep up pressure on the prime minister.