BANGKOK -- A local by-election on March 7 has risen in political significance because of simmering tensions that have surfaced within Thailand's coalition government, confronting Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha with new rifts in his 19-party alliance.
The Democrat Party -- the country's oldest party and a junior partner in the coalition -- is openly feuding with the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), the pro-military senior partner, for fielding a candidate to contest in the southern Nakhon Si Thammarat province constituency that has traditionally been a Democrat stronghold.
The Democrats say the PPRP ignored a political agreement not to challenge their nominee, Pongsin Senpong, in the by-election. The PPRP's decision to throw its weight behind its candidate Aryasit Srisuwan has soured the mood among some Democrat lawmakers from the south, according to sources within the party.
"If everyone is allowed to contest for the same seat, then this government's days are numbered," warned Wittaya Kaewparadai, a ranking Democrat member.
The feud over the Nakhon Si Thammarat poll comes amid other signs of friction within the ranks of the alliance. Votes during a February no-confidence motion in the lower house -- as well as a criminal court ruling that forced two cabinet ministers and a deputy minister to quit, ratcheting up speculation about which factions will fill the vacancies -- exposed the troubles facing Prayuth.
The censure motion saw Prayuth's majority in the lower house affirmed, as he won 272 votes against the opposition's 206. But discord emerged during the votes for the nine cabinet ministers under scrutiny, when two groups of government lawmakers broke ranks by not voting in support of two ministers.
The censure motion was the second that Prayuth faced after forming a government following the 2019 general election. That poll marked the end of the powerful former army chief's term as head of a junta, which he formed to run the country for nearly five years after staging the 2014 military coup, Thailand's 13th successful putsch since the absolute monarchy ended in 1932.
"The government cannot ignore these internal divisions because in Thai coalition politics a government that may have votes to feel confident at one stage can suddenly be in a fragile situation if there are factional splits," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank. "The government is being held together by Prayuth and he will have to manage the differences coming into the open."
The ruling coalition includes the PPRP, which has 121 seats; Bhumjaithai, with 61 seats; and the Democrats, with 51 seats. Micro-parties hold smaller numbers of seats: five, four and even one. The coalition also has a faction of lawmakers from the south aligned to the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), an ultra-royalist and ultra-conservative protest movement, which has 14 parliamentarians but has not been rewarded with a cabinet post.
The late February court ruling against Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan, Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta and Deputy Transport Minister Thaworn Senneam has generated heat because of reported behind-the-scenes lobbying to fill the vacancies. The two ministers hailed from one of the five main factions in the PPRP, and the deputy minister filled the cabinet quota for the Democrat Party. Two parliamentarians elected from southern constituencies were also found guilty by the Criminal Court, setting the stage for two likely special elections.
They were among 25 leading figures of the PDRC who were found guilty for violations during anti-government street protests in Bangkok from late 2013 to mid-2014 that paved the way for the military to overthrow the elected government led by then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The verdict has reportedly shocked the ultra-royalist camp, whose voters have backed the Prayuth government.
Bangkok-based diplomats were also taken by surprise by the harshness of the ruling, with jail terms for charges ranging from incitement, rebellion, illegal assembly and intrusion into state property to disrupting a general election months before the coup.
"We were not expecting the verdict to go the way it did -- the ruling against so many," a Western diplomat told Nikkei Asia. "But this has opened the way for [Deputy Agriculture Minister] Thammanat [Prompao] as a power broker [within the coalition] to get stronger."
Thammanat has been a key ally of Prayuth and his Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, leader of the PPRP, to secure support for the alliance from micro-parties. He was responsible for roping in 10 small parties to join the government's ranks after the election, describing his brokering skills as that of a "monkey keeper" feeding bananas to the parliamentarians he lured.
Thammanat has been retained by Prayuth even after Australian media reported in 2019 that he had been jailed in the 1990s for heroin trafficking in Australia. He denied the media report and threatened to press libel charges.
The signs of pressure within the government's ranks come eight months after the PPRP was rocked by an internal revolt that succeeded in ousting three senior ministers, all of them belonging to a technocratic-economic wing. It came in the wake of discontent within Prayuth's party about dispensing a historic 1.9 trillion baht ($60 billion) stimulus package that the parliament had approved to help revive an economy reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sources within the prime minister's office say the rifts within the coalition pose a bigger challenge for Prayuth than the months of anti-government protests, led by angry youth, on Bangkok's streets.
"The student protests have not had much of an impact, but the only worry is monarchy-related issues," a person close to Prayuth told Nikkei Asia, referring to calls by youth protesters to reform the dominant culture of country's still untouchable monarchy. "He cannot remain silent about it."