Thailand DPM Prawit Wongsuwan agrees to become leader of ruling Palang Pracharath Party

Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan (left) and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. PHOTO: ROYAL THAI GOVERNMENT

BANGKOK - Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has agreed to be the new head of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, a move that will likely set off changes to the country's Cabinet.

Mr Prawit's decision comes amidst an internal feud at the party, and after more than half the party's executive board resigned on June 1.

"People in the party did not understand each other, so I'm going to take care of it. That's all," the 74-year-old former army chief told reporters on Tuesday (June 23).

On Monday, a group of high ranking Palang Pracharath members - among them deputy leader Paiboon Nititawan, Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan, and Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta - formally invited Mr Prawit to become the party leader. He accepted the offer.

"He is a senior person that party members respect. He can prevent conflicts and strengthen the party," said Mr Virat Rattanaset, an interim executive member.

There have been growing calls to depose party leader, Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana, and party secretary-general, Energy Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong.

On June 1, 18 of the party's 34 executive members resigned en masse in a bid to push for leadership change. According to party regulations, if more than half of its executives resign, the party will need to re-elect its committee members within 45 days, otherwise the entire committee would be dissolved.

The re-election is scheduled for this Saturday.

Palang Pracharath is currently Thailand's biggest party with 120 lawmakers, and was only recently established to contest the March 2019 general election.

While Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, also a retired general, is not a member, he was nominated by the party to become prime minister.

Mr Prawit and Mr Prayut have formed close bonds over their years serving in the Queen's Guard.

Analysts say there will be changes to Mr Prayut's Cabinet once Mr Prawit is formally appointed.

"Mr Prawit was already considered the de facto leader of Palang Pracharath. His formal leadership position is expected to be temporary until the party can find someone else with enough influence," said Assistant Professor Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science professor at Rangsit University.

"The party members are using Mr Prawit to get what they want. The party has poached a lot of MPs and may not have allocated seats thoroughly. Going through Mr Prawit directly would be easier. Mr Prayut has the utmost respect for him, and politicians know Mr Prayut will remain the prime minister," the academic added.

The 250 senators appointed in May last year will serve a five-year term, enough time for them to vote for Mr Prayut as prime minister again when his term ends in 2023.

Mr Prawit came under fire in December 2017 after he was spotted wearing up to two dozen luxury watches on different occasions, with a total estimated worth of US$1.2 million (S$1.7 million), and a large diamond ring, which were not declared as assets.

He said the watches were borrowed from a billionaire friend and that the ring belonged to his mother. The anti-graft agency cleared him of any wrongdoing last month.

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