A major Thai student activist group plans to rally tomorrow outside the country’s parliament in a bid to apply pressure on the 250-member Senate to support the formation of a new government under the Move Forward Party (MFP).
The MFP, which is led by 42-year-old businessman Pita Limjaroenrat, won an unexpected victory in the general election on May 14, winning a projected 152 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives. Late last week, the party announced plans to form a coalition government with seven other parties, including the second-placed Pheu Thai Party, which is likely to win 141 seats, to end nine years of rule by the military and military-adjacent parties. The coalition would hold a total of 313 seats in the House.
However, the total still falls short of the 376 parliamentary votes needed in order to guarantee Pita’s selection as the country’s next prime minister when parliament convenes a joint session in July. To make up for the shortfall, the MFP-led coalition will either need the support of conservative political parties, or of members of the military-appointed Senate, which is expected to block any anti-establishment candidate.
In order to apply pressure on the Senate, the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD) has called a protest outside parliament tomorrow to pressure it to respect the will of the “genuine holders of sovereign power”: the people.
“No matter how much this election has demonstrated the people’s true intention, some senators have shown disagreement with the democratic principle. They stand ready to vote against the wish of the elected representatives of the people and to obstruct any change which may occur,” the UFTD said in the Facebook post, the Bangkok Post reported. “The people’s victory must not be ruined by the senators,” it added.
The UFTD was one of several student groups that played a significant role in the series of mass demonstrations in late 2020 and early 2021. These saw nearly unprecedented attacks on the load-bearing ideologies of the Thai state, particularly the sacralized notion of the monarchy.
That policy is shared to an extent by the MFP, which, while shying away from the more critical demands of the youth movement, made reform of Article 112 of the Thai penal code – the lese-majeste law – a key part of its election campaign. The law criminalizes any criticism of the Thai monarchy, with prison terms of up to 15 years for each offense, and has been frequently used to silence dissent, most recently against scores of student protest leaders involved in the 2020-2021 protests. According to the advocacy group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, more than 200 people have been charged with lese-majeste since late 2020, including several leading members of the UFTD.
The MFP’s stance on the lese-majeste law is likely to prove the biggest obstacle to expanding its base of support, both among other parties and within the Senate. Late last week, the Senate’s Committee on political development and public participation announced that it was setting up a panel to review Pita’s candidacy. Committee member Chadej Insawang told a Thai television network that the review will focus on Pita’s intentions regarding the monarchy. He said that the committee will complete its work in one month and submit the results to the Election Commission.
The Election Commission is also investigating a complaint, filed by a member of the military-backed ruling Palang Pracharath Party, that Pita holds 42,000 shares in the broadcaster iTV and failed to disclose them among his assets. The Constitution prohibits owners or shareholders of media firms from running for political office, though Pita’s stake is minuscule and the broadcaster is currently inactive.
In its hair-splitting technicality, the complaint strongly resembles the case that brought down the leader of MFP’s predecessor party, Future Forward, and led to its court-ordered dissolution – a key catalyst for the mass demonstrations of 2020.
That previous episode could be important to how things unfold in the weeks to come. While Pita is confident of forming the next government, the UFTD’s protest announcement is a sign that, should either of these obstacles be used to block Move Forward’s path to power, student political groups stand ready to take the fight back to the streets.