The biggest party in Thailand's ruling coalition was hit by a mass resignation of executive members yesterday amid growing talk of internal discord.
Mr Paiboon Nititawan, deputy leader of Palang Pracharath Party, announced that 18 of its 34 executive members had quit the board, paving the way for fresh internal elections to pick new executives and a party leader.
Although some expect this to lead to a Cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha played down the turmoil in the party. He is not an official member of Palang Pracharath, but was nominated by the party for premiership.
"It's not time to think about this. I have said this repeatedly... there is tremendous suffering out there," he told reporters, in response to questions.
Asean's second-largest economy shrank 1.8 per cent in the first quarter compared with a year earlier, as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered tourism and manufacturing and decimated global trade. Thailand's planning agency expects the whole-year gross domestic product to shrink 5 per cent to 6 per cent.
With the Bank of Thailand slashing its benchmark interest rate to a record low of 0.5 per cent, the Lower House passed a 1.9 trillion baht (S$84.6 billion) support package over the weekend to soften the pandemic's economic toll.
Palang Pracharath is led by Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana. Its secretary-general is Energy Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong. Both were ministers in the former military government who quit just before the 2019 polls to run for election under this new party.
But Palang Pracharath is cobbled together from many factions which have long rivalled one another for influence in the government.
Chulalongkorn University political scientist Pitch Pongsawat said the politicians within the party are disgruntled that Mr Prayut is leaning on technocrats like Dr Uttama to run the government.
After the Palang Pracharath leadership is changed, Mr Prayut will be pressured to reshuffle his Cabinet, Dr Pitch said, adding: "He will have to do it, otherwise he will not get support in Parliament."
Among the 18 members who have resigned from Palang Pracharath's board are Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompao, Education Minister Nattapol Teepsuwan, and Digital Economy and Society Minister Puttipong Punnakan.
In announcing the resignations yesterday, Mr Paiboon also said: "Change is normal for political parties, especially Palang Pracharath which is new and big, with more than 100 MPs leading the government coalition."
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, the party's chief strategist, has been tipped to become the new party leader.
The former army chief is widely seen to be a central figure in the comeback of key military personnel in the post-election government.
Asked if Mr Prawit will become the new party leader, Mr Paiboon said: "General Prawit is our senior and a core pillar (of the party)... But to elect new executives, we have to wait for the general assembly and see what our members think."