Thailand’s General Election: Can the Winner Really Take All?

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Thailand’s General Election: Can the Winner Really Take All?

The opposition Pheu Thai Party is well placed to win the May 14 polls. But will it be able to form government?

Thailand’s General Election: Can the Winner Really Take All?

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the leading prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Pheu Thai Party, speaks at a campaign rally on March 30, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Ing Shinawatra

On April 5, Thailand’s opposition Pheu Thai Party announced at a rally that the party would not join the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) in forming a coalition government after next month’s general election, despite rumors to the contrary. The party was aiming to reassure supporters and stated that its goal was to win at least 310 of the 500 seats in Parliament. Many polls report that Pheu Thai is the most popular choice to lead the government, with at least 35 percent support.

The question remains, however, whether the party can form a one-party government or even obtain the prime minister’s seat. Despite its likelihood of emerging with the largest share of parliamentary seats – the party and its predecessors have done so in every Thai election since 2001 – the party will face many challenges in forming the government, including the fact the 250 unelected senators will vote to elect the next prime minister, and are unlikely to support Pheu Thai’s chosen candidate, given the party’s association with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

According to the 2017 Constitution, prime ministerial candidates are not required to run for election. Political parties can nominate up to three candidates with the Election Commission of Thailand before election day. Only candidates whose party wins a minimum of 25 parliamentary seats are eligible for consideration. Until 2024, the selection of the prime minister is open to both the 500 MPs in the Lower House and the 250 members of the Senate Thus, to win the PM post, candidates likely must secure the support of 376 members of both houses of parliament. The Pheu Thai Party (PTP)’s “landslide strategy” of aiming to win at least 310 seats in the lower house would allow the party, with the support of other opposition parties, to claim a clear victory and appoint a PM despite having little support from the appointed Senate. Can the PTP, the party with the highest potential for electoral victory, achieve this landslide goal to form a one-party government and win the PM position? If not, what are the other possible electoral outcomes?

Winning 310 seats is not an easy task for the PTP. According to recent media interviews with senior members of the party, the PTP announced this strategy based on its victory in the 2001 and 2005 elections, in which the party won 248 seats and 377 seats, respectively. In those elections, though, the only main alternative party was the Democrat Party. There were no clear alternatives on either the liberal or conservative sides of the political spectrum.

In 2023, however, the electoral battlefield is crowded. The major conservative parties include the Democrats, the United Thai Nation Party, which supports Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as its prime ministerial candidate, Palang Pracharath, led by Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, and the Bhumjaithai Party, led by Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul. On the liberal side are PTP, the Move Forward Party, the Thai Sang Thai Party, led by former Pheu Thai prime ministerial candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan, and the Seri Ruam Thai Party, led by Seripisut Temiyavet.

The large number of options for voters will make it difficult for Pheu Thai to capture a landslide. Without a clear victory, it may be forced to form a coalition government with other parties from the liberal side, including Seri Ruam Thai and Move Forward. However, the PTP may need to consider this option carefully with regard to Move Forward’s policy on the reform of Article 112, Thailand’s lese-majeste law.

Aside from the above option, PTP may join political parties from the conservative group, including Palang Pracharath and Bhumjaithai. PPRP has headed the government under Prayut since 2019, and captured the prime ministerial post, despite being only the second-largest party in parliament, thanks to support from the 250 appointed senators. By joining PPRP, Pheu Thai could potentially gain support from the Senate. However, this might not result in a Pheu Thai prime minister, as the PPRP’s candidate, Prawit Wongsuwan, would prefer to become prime minister rather than take a backseat to the PTP.

Before the 2019 general election, Prawit had a hand in selecting the 250 appointed senators, which would likely give him a boost over any PTP candidate. While a PTP-PPRP coalition is possible, as mentioned above, senior members of Pheu Thai have declared their intention to establish a government without PPRP, calling on supporters to deliver a landslide victory. But the PPRP has additional advantages. Given his charisma and connections to many sectors, Prawit could help PTP form a stable government as well as create a path for Thaksin Shinawatra, one of the most influential and controversial figures in recent Thai political history, to return to the country.

During campaign debates, leaders of other conservative parties have stressed that if parties can form a coalition government with more than 250 seats, those parties should be allowed to rule the country, raising the prospect that the party that wins the largest number of seats may not form the government, as happened in 2019. If the PTP fails to form the collation government again after this election, there is a good chance that this will will allow the second largest party to form a government, perhaps in the same sort of patchwork conservative coalition that emerged after the last election. Last month, photos of Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of the Bhumjaithai party, having lunch with Prawit, were released in the media, signaling a possible cooperation between these two parties after the election.

In responding to PTP’s April 5 announcement that it would not join forces with the PPRP after the election, PPRP deputy party leader Paiboon Nithitawan insisted similarly at a press conference that his party would not form a government with Pheu Thai due to disagreements with several PTP policies. The statement may have been made to appeal to conservative voters who oppose pro-Thaksin and liberal parties. On the other hand, Paiboon’s message weakens PPRP’s claim to transcend past conflicts in Thai politics, emphasizing the party’s willingness to work with a broad array of parties after the election.

PPRP hopes that its motto will elevate it above the struggle between conservative and pro-democracy forces that have shaped Thai politics over the past two decades. The 2023 election will likely see a repeat of this struggle. Pheu Thai will likely gain the largest number of seats in parliament, as it and its predecessor parties have in every election since 2001. But whether that victory will translate into the capture of the prime minister’s seat is still in question.