Thai lawmakers have begun a no-confidence debate against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and five cabinet members, with the opposition threatening to escalate street protests fueled by frustration at Prayuth's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The debate started on Tuesday and was set to last four days, with voting by the lower house scheduled for Saturday. Anti-government protest groups have pledged to strengthen their efforts in the meantime to force the prime minister to resign on his own.
Prayuth has weathered two previous no-confidence votes and is expected to survive this time as well, as his coalition holds a clear parliamentary majority over the opposition.
Youth-led anti-government groups organized major anti-government rallies late last year, which unraveled into repeated standoffs with security forces and hundreds of arrests. This year, protests have returned more fiercely, as government opponents are frustrated by lockdowns, record COVID-19 deaths, and a problematic vaccine rollout.
In spite of the restrictive measures and the vaccination campaign launched by the government, the Southeast Asian country has seen a resurgence of the disease in the past weeks, with new cases hovering around the 20,000 mark daily.
The protesters accuse the former army chief of staff and five cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, of corruption, economic mismanagement, and mishandling the outbreak.
"Every seven minutes, a Thai person died because of the blundered management of the COVID-19 situation," Sompong Amornvivat, leader of the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, said in the parliament on Tuesday.
"There are economic losses of 8 billion baht (247.60 million dollars) per day from a lack of management and lockdown measures that have failed," he added.
In a scathing and personal attack, Amornvivat branded the prime minister "a power-crazed arrogant person unsuitable to lead the country," and said, "If we let him continue his leadership, it will lead to more people being infected and losing their lives."
Prayuth took power in a 2014 military coup and continued to serve as prime minister after the 2019 general elections, making him the longest-serving leader of Thailand since the end of the Cold War.
Protests against Prayuth have remained at a climax in recent weeks, despite frequent and sometimes violent clashes with police officers.