Now Reading
Will Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin survive?

Will Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin survive?

Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood is Associate Professor of Political Science at Mahidol University in Thailand

After eleven months as Prime Minister of Thailand, real-estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin, backed by the Pheu Thai-led coalition, has not yet successfully implemented any policies promised during his campaign. These include Pheu Thai’s signature 10,000 baht digital wallet, the Thai soft power policy and a land bridge megaproject. Policy implementation has been obstructed by legal limitations, disagreements with political analysts and the More Forward-led opposition. The government’s failure to implement policies could result in a cabinet reshuffle, threatening Srettha’s position as Prime Minister. Many observers believe true power is in the hands of Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire former Prime Minister and ex-leader of Pheu Thai who returned to Thailand last August after over a decade in exile. Rumours persist that Srettha will likely be replaced as Prime Minister long before his four-year term is up.

Srettha Thavisin was nominated by the Phea Thai Party in August 2023 as candidate for Prime Minister. On 22 August 2023, he became Thailand’s 30th Prime Minister after gaining a bicameral majority of 482 votes against 165. Srettha was the second prime ministerial candidate to be considered in parliament, following Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the progressive Move Forward Party who won the most votes in Thailand’s general election but failed to secure the majority needed in parliament to become Prime Minister. While Srettha succeeded where Pita failed, his control over parliament remains unstable as he lacks the MPs to support him both in the parliament and within his own party. Srettha only recently joined the Pheu Thai Party, and he did so without factional backing or political groups directly supporting him. Srettha’s cabinet ministers are not believed to be loyal to him personally, as most were appointed by Thaksin or other Pheu Thai elites. As such, he will likely be challenged on policy issues as well as in parliamentary debate.  

During the election campaign, Srettha announced a digital wallet scheme as part of an economic stimulus package with Pheu Thai promising to hand out 10,000 baht (US$270) to all Thais aged 16+ regardless of wealth. Based on this criteria, around 50 million young people would be eligible to receive the funds, which could cost a total of 560 billion baht (US$15.2 billion). While this proposed policy would have a tangible positive impact on the poorest Thais, the government continue to postpone its implementation due to endless disagreements between economists, opposition parties, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and the current Governor of the Bank of Thailand, Sethaput Suthiwartnarueput. Critics stress that the Thai economy is already in recovery and expected to grow by around 3.5% this year. Thus, spending a significant amount to accelerate domestic consumption is not an urgent requirement to boost economic recovery. In February, the NACC released a report on the digital wallet policy questioning the scheme’s sustainability in the long term and raising concerns over potentially corruption that could be triggered by the initiative. Despite the NACC’s objections, Srettha’s government have continued to stand by the policy insisting that eligible people will receive money from the program by the end of this year.

Another of Srettha’s headline promises was the creation of a new soft power policy to boost the economy and enhance Thailand’s regional and global influence. He appointed Paethongthan Shinawatra, Thaksin’s daughter, as deputy Chairwoman for the National Soft Power Strategy Committee. The committee proposed that 5.1 billion baht ($193 million) be set aside to finance potential projects in the entertainment, tourism, arts and fashion sectors that could encourage investment in the Thai economy. This policy, however, has also faced much opposition mainly because the government and its soft power committee have not yet identified how the country should utilise soft power for economic prosperity or even how to define soft power. For instance, recently Thai elephant patterned trousers were widely categorised as indicative of the country’s soft power, but there is no clear explanation as to how elephant patterned trousers can be leveraged to increase Thailand’s global influence aside from selling more trousers. To be successful in this policy, the government must articulate its goals beyond just promoting its local and cultural assets in the world market. Achieving greater geopolitical influence will require more than merely selling domestic products.

The government has also failed to push forward a land bridge megaproject, a policy designed to promote economic growth in the south of Thailand. The plan aims to construct deep water ports in the Gulf of Thailand (Chumphon province) and the Andaman Sea (Ranong province) and connect them using overland transportation. Ships carrying goods exported from Northeast Asia would be able to unload their cargo in Chumphon, then the cargo could be transferred via highways, railways, and pipelines to ships waiting in the Andaman Sea port located in Rayong. The reverse journey would be available for ships from Western Asia and Europe. The land bridge project was originally initiated by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2005 under the Kla canal project, but it was frozen due to the military coup a year later. The project re-emerged in the public eye when the military government that staged a coup in 2014 revitalized it in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic placed it back on hold.

Srettha is determined to launch this project again, hoping to draw investment to Thailand. Although the Strait of Malacca is an effective sea lane between Malaysia and Indonesia, linking the Asia-Pacific region to India and Africa, the land bridge project would provide an alternative quicker route to support transport and maritime logistics, saving time and money. However, this policy has also faced obstacles. Opposition party MPs who were part of a committee set up to study the proposals for the land bridge project resigned due to the unclear plans presented by the government. Local people living in the area of the proposed construction came out to protest the project during a visit by Srettha to the area in February, highlighting the negative impact such a trade corridor would have on the environment, tourism and the local fishing industry. Whether this project will happen, as promised, by the end of Srettha’s four-year term is still unclear.

After eleven months as Prime Minister, Srettha has travelled internationally to introduce himself and pitch projects for Thailand, marketing himself as a salesman attempting to attract foreign investors to the country. However, his economic diplomacy policy has not yet shown any signs of success. The failure to implement any of the central promises of his campaign may endanger his political future, especially following Thaksin’s return to Thailand. Thaksin, who returned from exile only to be jailed on corruption charges, recently qualified for early release, this will undermine Srettha’s authority within Pheu Thai and limit his capacity to deliver on his promises even further.

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA.

© Royal Society for Asian Affairs. All rights reserved.
Scroll To Top