BANGKOK (AP) — Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has broken with the military-backed political party that helped him take office after a 2019 general election and joined a new rival party on Monday with which he is likely to seek another term this year.
Prayuth first seized power as army chief in a 2014 military coup and then became prime minister in a military government. He did not run in the 2019 election but was the prime ministerial candidate of the Palang Pracharath Party, which put together a post-election coalition that named him to the nation’s top political post.
On Monday, Prayuth formally joined Ruam Thai Sang Chart, or the United Thai Nation Party, which held its first meeting in August last year. The move had its roots in an often denied but barely concealed rift between him and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, a close military comrade for decades who became leader of the Palang Pracharath Party in 2020.
Their political falling out became clear when Palang Pracharath announced that Prawit would be its candidate for prime minister in this year’s general election, which must be held by May.
Prawit is widely seen as harboring ambitions for the top job and seemed visibly energized last year while serving as acting prime minister when Prayuth was temporarily suspended for legal reasons.
Prayuth gave a speech Monday at a campaign-style rally in Bangkok in which he said the main reason he was joining a new party was that “Thailand must continue to move forward.”
“I have been thinking how I could continue to solve the country’s problems. I can’t do this alone. I need a team, I need to work with what you call a political party,“ Prayuth told thousands of supporters wearing blue, red and white shirts, the colors of Thailand’s flag.
There are questions about Prayuth’s political viability. His popularity ratings are low, with critics accusing him of mishandling the economy and botching Thailand’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is also limited by the constitution to serving a maximum of two more years as prime minister rather than a full term.
The 2014-2019 military government arranged election laws to favor the Palang Pracharath, but the party's uninspiring performance in office and the steady strength of civilian-led parties have eaten away at its advantages.
Puangthong Pawakapan, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said Prayuth’s move to a new party shows he is eager to stay in power.
“However, this coming election is not going to be easy for him. Everyone knows that his new party is separate from the Palang Pracharath Party, but much weaker.”
A main contender for the prime minister’s job is Public Health Minister Anutin Anutin Charnvirakul of the Bhumjai Thai party, a well-funded partner in Prayuth’s coalition government. It picked up many of the 14 members of Parliament who recently abandoned Palang Pracharath.
The main opposition party, Pheu Thai, remains popular. It is closely linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, and the military’s hostility to his political machine led to the downfall of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as prime minister in 2014 and another army takeover.
Pheu Thai has announced that Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, will help lead its next election campaign.
Under Thailand’s election law, candidates must join parties 90 days before the polls, which must be held within 45 days of the end of the parliamentary session. Parliament's term is scheduled to end on March 23, but the prime minister could call an earlier dissolution.
Associated Press video journalist Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.