Thailand’s Establishment Clings To Power, Despite Vote For Change


By Harry Pearl and Nontarat Phaicharoen

The selection of Srettha Thavisin as Thailand’s prime minister this week brings closure to months of post-election uncertainty, but in many regards the nation’s political landscape looks much the same.

Far from being a watershed moment, the result has reaffirmed the grip of Thailand’s establishment on the levers of power, while dashing the hopes of millions of citizens who wanted a progressive, pro-democracy government. 

The 61-year-old political outsider, who was voted in as PM on Tuesday, now faces an unwieldy task of holding together a coalition in which his Pheu Thai party is outnumbered by rivals from the outgoing administration of Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the leader of a 2014 coup against a Pheu Thai government led by Yingluck Shinawatra.

On Thursday, the property tycoon paid a “courtesy call” to Prayuth at Government House in Bangkok, where the pair discussed how to move past the divisions that have periodically roiled the country over the past two decades. 

“It will be hard to overcome the disputes in many areas. They will not go away after one meeting. It takes time,” said Srettha, who wore a yellow tie to the meeting, the color associated with Thailand’s monarchy.

Whether the new premier can overcome these divisions is doubtful, according to analysts. Srettha, who only entered politics nine months ago, holds little sway with lawmakers in his own party, let alone ministers from other parties in his cabinet.

His coalition would collapse without the support of three rival parties – Bhumjaithai, Palang Pracharath and the United Thai Nation party – said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, of the Thailand Studies Program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“He can be easily voted out in a no-confidence motion in the House of Representatives. In other words, he will be a lame duck PM, just like Yingluck,” he said.

Improving the economy and tackling inequality have been at the center of Srettha’s political messaging, and on Friday he said Pheu Thai would take the portfolios of economy-oriented ministries. Parliament should begin cross-checking ministers’ qualifications by early next week.

But advancing his party’s policy agenda and balancing the entrenched interests of Thailand’s elite and military will take a deft touch.

As a minority in its own government, Pheu Thai may struggle to advance its proposals on political and constitutional reform, said Ken Mathis Lohatepanont, a Thai political science researcher at the University of Michigan.

“Pheu Thai made a lot of hefty policy pledges in the run-up to the election, including giving away 10,000 baht [U.S. $285] of ‘digital money’ to people. However, Srettha faces several challenges,” Ken said.

“For one, he has no real independent power base and has no experience in elected office. Secondly, Pheu Thai will likely have to give up control of several major ministries to its coalition partners, which could give it even less latitude to implement its policies.”

In one of his final acts as prime minister, Prayuth chaired a seven-member panel that selected new military chiefs this week, including the supreme commander of the Armed Forces, commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army and commander-in-chief of the Air Force.

“Not much is left for Pheu Thai or Srettha to create any patronage through the appointment of key military posts,” Termsak said.

‘Beyond betrayal’

Enacting its policy pledges will be important for Pheu Thai to restore its image after abandoning the Move Forward Party, which won the most parliamentary seats in the May 14 general election.

Move Forward’s progressive political agenda, including a promise to reform the royal insult law, drew the ire of conservative and pro-royal lawmakers in Parliament, who twice rebuffed the prime ministerial nomination of party leader Pita Limjaroenrat.

Move Forward’s campaign pledge to amend the law, known as lèse-majesté and which forbids insulting the royal family, made it impossible to win support needed to form a ruling coalition, Pheu Thai said. 

But by subsequently partnering with arch rivals that it had vowed not to do a deal with, Pheu Thai has done long-term harm to its reputation, analysts and some supporters said.

A recent poll of 1,310 people by the National Institute of Development Administration showed that about 64% disagreed with a Pheu Thai-led “special government” that includes military-backed groups.

“I think that Pheu Thai will now be forced to run essentially as a conservative party in future elections, having ceded the ground as an anti-establishment party to Move Forward,” Ken said.

Pheu Thai has promised not to touch the royal defamation law and the fealty with which its patriarch, Thaksin Shinawatra, showed the king in a carefully staged return from exile this week underscored its commitment to the country’s traditional institutions. 

After landing in Bangkok, Thaksin exited a private jet terminal to lay a flower wreath and prostrate himself in front of a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (Rama X) and Queen Suthida. He was then whisked to jail, where he is eligible to apply for a royal pardon. 

The timing of Thaksin’s arrival – on the same day as the parliamentary vote for Srettha – has spurred discussion about what backroom deal-making laid the foundations for his return.

Thaksin was ousted as prime minister in a military coup in 2006 and fled Thailand in 2008 to escape a prison term for charges that he maintains were politically motivated. Even in exile, the telecoms tycoon remained an influential figure in Thailand and the Pheu Thai party.

For many Thaksin supporters, popularly known as the “red shirts” for the color of their uniforms, Pheu Thai’s decision to partner with pro-military parties is an unbelievable turn of events.

Jatuporn Prompan, an activist and former chairman of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), which took part in anti-government protests from 2009 to 2010, said he did not expect to see this kind of resolution to Thailand’s post-election deadlock.  

“It’s beyond betrayal or treason,” he told BenarNews, adding that many people were killed or injured in violent political standoffs between pro-Thaksin red shirts and the army in 2009-10.

“It became evident on Aug. 22 that they were in cahoots. Too much theater by Pheu Thai and the NCPO [National Council for Peace and Order],” he said, referring to the former military junta under Prayuth’s leadersip by its official name.

Now, pro-democracy supporters have been deceived, said Jatuporn, who was also a former member of parliament for the Pheu Thai Party. 

“As the former president of UDD, I never expected this,” he said.


BenarNews’ mission is to provide readers with accurate news and information that reflects the complex and ever-changing world around them. With homepages in Bengali, Thai, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia and English, BenarNews brings timely news to its diverse audience. Copyright BenarNews. Used with the permission of BenarNews

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