BANGKOK -- Thailand's ruling party appears ready to nominate Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to run again in the next general election despite sinking public approval -- an offer that has been met with enthusiasm from the leader and stirred debate over term limits.
"The prime minister was pleased," government spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana said after a weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday, referring to the Palang Pracharat Party's apparent offer to make Prayuth its prime ministerial candidate in a vote to be held by 2023.
"[Prayuth] thanked the Palang Pracharat Party for placing its trust in him," Thanakorn added.
This came in response to leaked comments by party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon. "I am the party leader and the prime minister is Prayuth," Prawit reportedly told a small gathering of senior party members on Sept. 30, while discussing election strategy. "He will be with us till death do us part," the party boss was quoted as saying.
Prayuth survived his third no-confidence vote in early September. But in the run-up to the balloting, there had been rumors of a political plot involving the ruling party to oust him. Thamanat Prompow, the party's secretary-general and Prawit's close ally, was said to be involved. Thamanat denied the rumors but resigned as the Prayuth government's deputy minister of agriculture and cooperatives soon after the no-confidence vote.
The exact date of the next election remains up in the air, and it is unclear whether Prawit's stance reflects a consensus within the ruling party or is simply an effort to demonstrate that any rift between the party and the prime minister has been resolved.
The prospect of a formal Prayuth nomination, however, raises legal and strategic questions.
The latest constitution -- the country's 20th since 1932 -- bans any individual from serving as prime minister for more than eight years, regardless of whether the four-year terms are served consecutively. The ruling coalition and the opposition disagree on how to interpret this rule.
Prayuth seized power in a military coup in May 2014 and became the premier of the junta. The new charter was enacted in April 2017. Prayuth then became prime minister of the elected government in July 2019.
The opposition insists his time should be up as early as next year, as he has led the country in one way or another since 2014. The ruling coalition claims he has plenty of time left, arguing the rule only took effect when the constitution was promulgated.
According to the government spokesman, Prayuth has asked Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kreangam, the cabinet's legal expert, to come up with an official interpretation of the term-limit rule. The result may be brought to the Constitutional Court in the future.
Either way, Prayuth also faces the challenge of generating enough public support to convince Palang Pracharat that he can lead the party to victory. In a quarterly survey conducted by the National Institute of Development Administration in September, 17.5% of 2,018 respondents considered the incumbent the most suitable choice to lead the country, down from 19.3% in June and 28.8% in March.
The Thai Sang Thai Party's Sudarat Keyuraphan and Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat both scored 11%, while 32.6% said nobody was suitable for the post.
In terms of party preference, 22.5% supported the Pheu Thai Party, run by allies of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, while 15.1% chose the anti-establishment progressive Move Forward Party. Palang Pracharat was backed by 9.5%, down from 10.7% in June and 16.6% in March. Another 30.8% of respondents declined to back any particular party.
Since late March, Thailand has been struggling with a third wave of COVID-19. The situation worsened in July due to the spread of the delta strain. The economic strain of the outbreaks and subsequent business lockdowns infuriated the public, with many citizens blaming the government's vaccine rollout strategy. Thailand had fully vaccinated 30.25% of its population as of Tuesday, after a slow start to the campaign.
To win back support, the government aims to revive the economy through stimulus measures, including plans to revive tourism. The government hopes to welcome vaccinated international tourists back to Bangkok, for example, in November.
The Bank of Thailand expects Southeast Asia's second-largest economy to grow 0.7% in 2021 and 3.9% in 2022, according to the central bank's statement from a policy meeting held Sept. 29.