By Wilawan Watcharasakwej and Nontarat Phaicharoen
A pro-democracy alliance seeking to form Thailand’s new government will nominate a prime ministerial candidate from the Pheu Thai party next week, an alliance leader said Friday.
Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew said the alliance would name its candidate on Monday or Tuesday, while the parliamentary vote for the prime minister’s post is set for Thursday, July 27.
The top vote-getter in the May 2023 general election, the Move Forward Party (MFP), earlier on Friday said it would back a Pheu Thai nominee for prime minister after MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat was dealt a fatal blow in his bid to win Parliament’s support for the top post.
The alliance is trying to become the first pro-democracy one to come to power in Thailand since a military coup in May 2014 toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, who was also with Pheu Thai.
After a meeting of the eight-party alliance on Friday, Cholnan Srikaew outlined to reporters the party’s strategy – two options to begin with – to get enough key votes from the Senate, whose non-elected members were appointed by Thailand’s then-military rulers in 2019.
“To gain 63 votes from senators who have an issue with reforming Article 112, Pheu Thai would talk to them and learn from them how they want [MFP] to relax its conditions on the issue, and convey that to Move Forward,” Cholnan told reporters during a joint press conference at his party’s headquarters alongside Move Forward’s secretary-general.
Pro-royalist members of the upper house Senate, whose votes are crucial for deciding who will lead Thailand’s next government, killed off Pita’s chances at becoming PM by blocking him from being nominated for a second round of voting on July 19. That morning, the Constitutional Court ordered that he be suspended as an MP for having violated election laws by owning shares in a media company.
In the May 14 election, Move Forward and Pheu Thai trounced pro-royalist partiesthat have ruled the country in some form or another since the 2014 coup. But with only 312 seats in the bicameral legislature, the alliance is short of the combined 375 it needs to govern.
In last week’s parliamentary vote for the PM’s post, a majority of the Senators were either absent or voted against Pita, who wanted to, among other reforms, amend a draconian royal defamation law, Article 112.
“If the first option doesn’t work out, and we don’t get sufficient senators’ support, Pheu Thai will talk to other parties at its discretion to acquire sufficient support in the House of Representatives,” Cholnan said, referring to the lower house and to parties not in the eight-party coalition.
Reporters at the press conference asked MFP Secretary-General Chaitawat Tulathon about Pheu Thai’s strategy.
“Let Pheu Thai Party discuss with the senators how they want the Lese Majeste [Article 112] terms and conditions resolved,” he said.
“It [Article 112] is just an excuse,” Chaitawat said.
His claim was that senators were touting the royal defamation reform issue as their sticking point, when in reality they were against MFP’s entire progressive agenda. That includes plans to rewrite the constitution, end business monopolies, and modernize the justice system and security forces.
BenarNews asked political analyst Titipol Phakdeewanich for his views on Pheu Thai’s strategy.
Titipol said Pheu Thai seemed to be caught in a bind, with both the options it outlined to gain votes looking untenable to one side or the other.
“It is highly likely that the Pheu Thai’s endeavor to form a government will be compromised if it has to ask Move Forward to back off from amending the royal defamation law,” Titipol, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, told BenarNews.
Inviting other parties to support it is also a fraught prospect, Titipol said.
The conservative Bhumjaithai party, for one, is strongly opposed to amending the royal defamation law, although Pheu Thai leaders are scheduled to meet with its party leaders on Saturday.
“If Pheu Thai were to invite the Bhumjaithai Party, then the Move Forward Party would be dissatisfied,” he said.
“And if it were to invite the Palang Pracharath Party, which took part in [the May 2014] coup, then Pheu Thai will lose its popularity in the next election,” he added.
In sum, Titipol believes, the safest option for Pheu Thai would be to stay away from other parties, but bend a little on the royal defamation law.
“I think the Move Forward Party would not lose popularity if it backed off from Article 112,” he said.
Titipol believes Srettha Thavisin, a Thai property tycoon, will be Pheu Thai’s pick for prime minister.
Move Forward, for its part, said earlier Friday that “our ultimate goal is to successfully challenge the old regime’s grip on power.”
The party’s leader, Pita, reiterated that sentiment on social media.
“The most important thing is not that I become prime minister, but that we form a people’s government and end the military’s grip on power,” the 42-year-old, Harvard-educated leader said on Facebook.
The levers used by Thailand’s conservative establishment in pulling out all the stops to halt Pita’s ascent to the premiership has enraged young Thais who voted for this party, which embodied their hope of bringing sweeping change to the country.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch described the action taken by the Constitutional Court “politically motivated” and a serious blow to democracy.
“Thailand’s military-backed conservative elites are manipulating the constitutional and legal frameworks put in place after the 2014 coup to block a popularly elected political leader from forming the government,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at the New York-based rights watchdog group.
“Both the junta-appointed election commission and the politically dominated constitutional court are taking Thailand down a path that could seriously damage democratic rule.”
The Biden administration meanwhile is closely watching the post-election developments in Thailand, including the ongoing legal cases, the U.S. State Department told BenarNews on Friday.
“We support a post-election process that reflects the will of the Thai people and supports a democratic and prosperous future for Thailand. This moment is an opportunity for Thailand to demonstrate its commitment to democracy,” a spokesperson for the department said in a statement.
“The United States does not have a preferred outcome in the Thai election, nor do we support any particular party or politician,” it said.
“What we do wholeheartedly champion is multiparty democracy and a post-election process that reflects the will of the Thai people and supports a democratic and prosperous future for Thailand.