Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is encountering another tough test that could oust him from power in the final stretch of his four-year term as he is set to face a fourth no-confidence motion later this month.
The opposition bloc led by the Pheu Thai Party last month filed the censure motion against Prayut and 10 ministers for failing to solve economic problems, prevent corruption and mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.
The issues are similar to those Prayut had been accused of in a 2021 no-confidence motion. But it is uncertain whether he will win the confidence vote as he is in a more vulnerable position due to friction within the ruling Palang Pracharath Party and the post-pandemic economic recovery being impeded by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
If Prayut loses, he will step down and a new prime minister will be chosen from members of the House of Representatives, with the names of possible candidates including Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who heads the coalition partner Bhumjaithai Party, emerging.
In case Prayut survives, Pheu Thai is expected to file a petition to the Constitutional Court to rule on the issue on Prayut's apparent bid to secure a controversial third term. The largest opposition, which consists of supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is gearing up efforts to demonstrate to voters that the government should change.
In the censure debate likely to be held later this month, Pheu Thai is vowing to grill Prayut and the 10 ministers over their failure in coping with the nation's increasing debt and their abuse of power by allocating budgets to strongholds of the coalition parties.
In the previous no-confidence motion against six ministers in September 2021, which was voted down by the ruling coalition, Prayut received the highest number of no-confidence votes amid the conflict within the party.
That conflict ended in the breakup of the 18-member faction led by then deputy agriculture minister Thamanat Prompow, who was eventually ousted from the post for his alleged attempt to unseat Prayut.
In the upcoming censure motion, Prayut needs the votes of more than half of the current 477 members of the House of Representatives, meaning he must win support from all lower house members of the ruling coalition formed by Palang Pracharath and over 10 other parties, and those of some opposition parties including Thamanat's party.
Wanwichit Boonprong, a politics lecturer at Rangsit University, believes Prayut will survive the censure motion by making money deals with the coalition partners and also some policymakers of the opposition.
But the Thai leader, believed to be aiming for the third term, would face another hurdle.
Prayut, a former army general who led a military coup in May 2014, assumed the premier post of the military government in August that year. While his two four-year-terms would end this August, Prayut's aides have argued since earlier this year that his term started technically in 2019 under the 2017 Constitution, maintaining that he could stay in the country's top post until 2023.
Rebutting the claim, the opposition has raised a legal question and will likely file a petition to the Constitutional Court to rule on the term issue if Prayut survives the no-confidence debate.
Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok's Institute, said that even if the Constitutional Court rules in favor of Prayut, it remains unclear whether Prayut can retain his grip on power and his party wins the next general election to be held in the first half of 2023.
Prayut's future depends on how many popular candidates Thaksin's Pheu Thai, which is strong in rural areas, and other parties can field, Stithorn said, adding, "There is a chance for Prayut's re-election as premier."
In Thailand, a prime minister is elected by votes cast by members of the lower house and junta-appointed senators. To field candidates for the general election, a party needs to submit up to three names as its premier nominations.
While Pheu Thai has not revealed its prime ministerial candidates, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin's youngest daughter, is expected to run for election. Thaksin is not qualified to do so as he was ousted in a 2006 coup and fled abroad to avoid legal cases. An opinion poll in late June showed she was the favorite candidate in the next general election.
Thaksin, who lives mainly in Dubai, has called for Pheu Thai supporters to vote, to return to power. In May, the party got momentum in the landslide victory of Chadchart Sittipunt, a former minister in the Phue Thai government, in the Bangkok governor election, solidifying its stronghold in the capital although Chadchart ran as an independent.
However, Stithorn noted that the diversity of voters in different regions would bring tough battles between Pheu Thai and the ruling Palang Pracharath and its partner parties in the national election.
Meanwhile, recent opinion polls showed high rates of those who want to see a change in politics including the prime minister, meaning Prayut can be a weakness for Palang Pracharath.
One Bangkok resident said Prayut should not return to power as the government has performed poorly during his eight years in office, particularly regarding the economy.
"Prayut's government has run the country without a long-term vision for solving economic problems. We have witnessed large public and household debts" incurred by the pandemic, the 24-year-old woman said.
But a motorcycle taxi driver said he thinks the Prayut government is not bad as it has been maintaining peace in the country after years of political turbulence and the premier's response to the pandemic was acceptable.
"Prayut could restore peace and order to our country. I don't like that political opponents fight against each other and turn society into chaos," the 51-year-old said.
(Raveebhorn Chaiprapa contributed to the story)