By Patrick Jory
The big surprise of Thailand’s 14 May general election was the performance of the Move Forward Party, which seemed to be a rebuke of nine years of political dominance by the monarchy and military-backed government.
Move Forward has a radical, progressive agenda that aims to reduce the influence of the monarchy and military in Thai politics and to begin dismantling the monopolies that distort Thailand’s economy. It emerged with the largest number of seats, 151, out of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives, and with 38 per cent of the vote.
A provisional coalition of other progressive parties — including Pheu Thai, the party of exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra — agreed to put forward the leader of Move Forward, Harvard graduate Pita Limjaroenrat, as prime minister.
Two months later, a sense of realism has set in. Move Forward was unable to place one of their MPs into the key role of speaker of the lower house of parliament. On 13 July, Pita failed to gain the backing of a majority in the combined House of Representatives and Senate to become prime minister. The main obstacle was the military-appointed Senate, most of whom declined to support Pita. On 19 July, the conservative-controlled Constitutional Court suspended Pita as an MP due to claims he violated electoral rules by holding shares in a media company.
At this stage it seems clear that Thailand’s conservative establishment has refused to allow Pita to become Thailand’s next prime minister.
Given conservative fears of a Move Forward government, it is also unlikely that the party will be allowed to be part of a coalition government.
Instead, it is Pheu Thai, which ran a respectable second place in the May election with 141 seats, which now appears to be taking the lead in forming an alternative, conservative coalition.
Even before the election there were rumours that the conservative parties had been negotiating with Pheu Thai with the prospect of forming a coalition. One report circulating in Thai social media even claimed that Thaksin had met with a close aide to King Vajiralongkorn, former army commander, General Apirat Kongsompong, on the Malaysian island of Langkawi in April. In its election campaign, Pheu Thai was careful not to antagonise the monarchy, by refusing to support calls to reform the draconian lèse majesté law, which forbids criticism of the monarchy.
In recent days the Pheu Thai leadership has publicly met with representatives of the conservative parties. These include the military-backed Palang Pracharat party, led by the politically influential general Prawit Wongsuwan. The two parties have more in common than one might think. In government, Palang Pracharat contained many politicians from Thaksin’s own former Thai Rak Thai party. Prior to the 2023 election, some Palang Pracharat politicians rejoined Pheu Thai, Thai Rak Thai’s successor party.
The other prospective partner is Bhumjaithai, another conservative populist party, which came third with 70 seats. Bhumjaithai is also part of Thaksin’s political network, having broken away from another earlier Thaksin party, Phalang Prachachon, in 2008.
Add some of the smaller parties and a Pheu Thai-led conservative coalition would have a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. This would be acceptable to the military-appointed Senate — and be able to form government. His daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra’s announcement on 26 July that Thaksin will return to Thailand on 10 August would seem to confirm that a deal has been reached.
There is a political logic to a Pheu Thai-led conservative coalition. Despite coming second to Move Forward, Thaksin and Pheu Thai remain a powerful force in Thai politics. Thaksin has publicly declared that he wants to return home from exile, and is willing to face legal charges and even some (token) jail time.
But Thaksin may also have calculated that a conservative coalition would give considerable leverage to Pheu Thai. With the radical Move Forward on the rise, ironically the conservatives now need Thaksin, hence their apparent willingness to deal with their erstwhile enemy. It would be a win-win situation for Pheu Thai, much preferable to playing second fiddle to Move Forward.
If Pheu Thai and the conservative parties do form a coalition, this would represent an historic political shift. The two sides have been in a political war since 2006. The conservatives have thrown everything at Thaksin — two military coups, three party dissolutions, the banning of his leading politicians, the seizure of his assets, drafting constitutions designed to keep him from winning elections, and killing scores of his ‘Red Shirt’ supporters in a violent crackdown on protests in 2010. Now, Thaksin may feel satisfied that the conservative parties have come begging to form a coalition to keep out Move Forward, whom they regard as the greater danger.
What would happen to Move Forward? It is possible the Constitutional Court will ban its popular leader, Pita, from politics, and maybe some of the other leading figures in Move Forward, to send a message to the party to tone down its radicalism. The Constitutional Court might even decide to dissolve the party altogether, as it did to the party’s previous incarnation, Future Forward, in 2020. The chance of this happening would increase if Move Forward continued to agitate on reforming the lèse majesté law.
But dissolving the party would be risky, given the widespread support it enjoys among the urban middle class. It would likely further radicalise Thailand’s youth, whose protests calling for fundamental reform of the monarchy in August 2020 shocked the country.
The Move Forward Party was born out of the dissolution of Future Forward, and in just three years it almost doubled its vote. It won every seat but one in Bangkok, which dominates national politics. Conservatives have to be careful not to overplay their hand.
While the conservatives appear to have seized a victory from the jaws of their election defeat, their overall position may be weaker than it seems. The long struggle between democratic reformers and Thailand’s conservative establishment may be entering a new phase.
About the author: Dr Patrick Jory is an Associate Professor of Southeast Asian History at The University of Queensland.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum