By Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwej
Following three months of political intrigue, Srettha Thavisin of the Pheu Thai Party secured enough votes from lawmakers in Parliament on Tuesday to become Thailand’s prime minister and form the next government.
The 61-year-old real estate tycoon and developer was voted in as the PM-elect hours after Thaksin Shinawatra, the party’s patriarch and a former prime minister who was deposed in a military coup in 2006, returned to the country on Tuesday morning after 15 years of self-imposed exile. Thaksin, a fugitive from the law, was taken into custody on corruption-related charges soon after his arrival in Bangkok.
“I, Srettha Thavisin, have the honor of being elected Thailand’s 30th prime minister. I thank all of the Thai people, the house of representatives and the senators who voted for me today. I will try to the best of my ability to help shore up the livelihood of all Thai people,” Srettha told reporters at Pheu Thai headquarters.
The existing 747 members of bicameral legislature voted 482 in favor of Srettha, 165 against with 81 abstentions.
Srettha is poised to become Thailand’s first civilian prime minister in nearly a decade, although his party received the backing of pro-military parties in its quest for power.
Srettha emerged as the frontrunner for prime minister after nominations for Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the reformist Move Forward Party, were blocked twice in July over concerns about his proposal to amend the royal defamation law, known as lèse-majesté. Pita was denied a path to power although his party had won the most parliamentary seats in the May 14 general election.
Pheu Thai placed second in the national polls but later formed an alliance with pro-royalist parties after it dumped Move Forward as a partner in a potential ruling coalition over the lèse-majesté issue.
A more pragmatic party, Pheu Thai took the leading role away from Move Forward in forming the new government with 10 other parties. The Move Forward Party won 151 seats, 10 more than Pheu Thai.
On Aug. 2, Pheu Thai announced it would nominate Srettha for prime minister and later joined with its former rivals in the outgoing government – Bhumjaithai, Palang Pracharath and the United Thai Nation party. Those parties have ties to the military.
Srettha is awaiting the king’s endorsement, but is expected to set up his cabinet and prepare to be sworn in within about 15 days before declaring his policies in Parliament.
The debate ahead of Tuesday’s vote for Srettha – who is not an MP and was monitoring the vote at Pheu Thai party headquarters – included criticism of his past business practices.
Last week, Chuvit Kamolvisit, a former sex industry titan who is a graft-busting political activist, accused Srettha of committing fraud when he was CEO at Sansiri PLC, and has called for an investigation into his business dealings.
On Tuesday, Sen. Prapan Koonmee alleged that Srettha’s company had illegally collected tolls from motorists who passed through what was supposed to be a free bridge his company built.
“Can you promise that you will not behave like this again?” Prapan asked. “When you become prime minister, you must not do this again.”
Ahead of the vote, Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew said he had no choice but to find common ground with the pro-royalist parties, given constitutional requirements.
“Pheu Thai is here to dissolve the disputes,” he told MPs. “We have to balance the power, compromise for the nation’s benefits and to protect the nation, monarchy and religions.”
‘Against the people’s mandate’
Chaitawat Tulathon, secretary-general of the Move Forward Party, was among lawmakers who opposed the vote for Srettha.
“The attempt to form a government is against the people’s mandate who reflected their intent during the May 14 election that they want to lift the NCPO’s grip on power. But this is the move to prolong the regime laid by the NCPO,” Chaitawat told MPs, referring to the National Council for Peace and Order, the official name of the junta which toppled a civilian government in a military coup in May 2014.
“People will lose faith in politics, which will lead to future turmoil. Millions of people are disappointed, angry and disgruntled with the ongoing politics,” he said.
Move Forward leader Pita promised that the party was not finished.
“Amid despair and loss of faith in the current politics and governance, the Move Forward under Pita Limjaroenrat will be the new power and hope for the people,” Pita said in an Instagram post.
He promised a modern and efficient examination of the power wielders as his party seeks solutions for the country.
“From today on, let’s all, brothers and sisters, join the journey with the Move Forward to campaign, work and create changes.”
In July 2020, students and other young people launched street protests to demand that 2014 coup leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha resign as prime minister, the monarchy be reformed and the constitution be rewritten. Prayuth, in return, enforced all “pertaining laws,” including lèse-majesté, against more than 200 protesters.
Thaksin comes home
Meanwhile in the morning, Thaksin arrived in Bangkok from Singapore aboard a private jet. The former prime minister and Pheu Thai leader had lived in self-imposed exile for 15 years after being forced from office in a coup 17 years ago.
His younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, suffered the same fate in the 2014 coup led by then-amry chief Prayuth.
Analyst Thannapat Jarernpanit, a professor at Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University, said he did not expect the new coalition government to last.
“I think it will not likely complete a four-year term because of the problem of balancing power in the Parliament,” she told BenarNews.
“Bear in mind that bringing Thaksin back home made some people angry, despite serving a jail term but likely with reduced measures for the privileged elite. It’s apparent that he was helped by someone.”