Rumors of Opposition Dissolution Swirl Ahead of Thai Election

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Rumors of Opposition Dissolution Swirl Ahead of Thai Election

With two opposition parties leading in pre-election polls, the country’s conservative establishment is reportedly considering drastic measures to keep them out of power.

Rumors of Opposition Dissolution Swirl Ahead of Thai Election

Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party, introduces himself during an election campaign in Bangkok, Thailand, March 29, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

Rumors are growing in Thailand that the conservative political establishment is plotting the dissolution of the country’s two most popular opposition parties ahead of this month’s general election, according to local media reports. Both the Pheu Thai Party (PTP) and the Move Forward Party (MFP) are polling strongly in the lead-up to the May 14 election and are within touching distance of upsetting the military-backed establishment’s control of the Thai government.

The Thai Enquirer, published an article today citing “numerous sources” inside the opposition parties and the current governing coalition, stating that “Thailand’s conservative establishment is slowly building a case to dissolve both PT and MFP.”

According to the report, the establishment is most concerned about the MFP’s progressive agenda, which includes a pledge to reform Article 112 of the penal code. Otherwise known as the lese-majeste law, Article 112 criminalizes any criticism of the Thai monarchy and has been used frequently by the conservative establishment in the past to quash dissenting opinions.

“It appears that the progressive agenda of the Move Forward Party is seen as a threat to the existing orthodoxy, and its plans to address the lese-majeste law (as well as other party policies like directly elected governors) are unacceptable to the conservative forces inside the courts and the establishment,” the Thai Enquirer reported.

It said that this threat had “seemingly doubled in recent weeks,” as MFP has climbed steadily in the polls. A Suan Dusit Poll released late last month showed that the MFP enjoyed the support of 19.32 percent of the 162,000 respondents, more than double the 8.48 percent commanded by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s United Thai Nation Party and the 7.49 percent of the military-backed ruling party, the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP). Other polls have shown that MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat is among the top two preferred prime ministerial candidates.

While the MFP’s stance on lese-majeste offers a simple justification for its dissolution, the possible case against the PTP is less straightforward. To be sure, the party is widely disliked by the conservative establishment due to its association with the exiled billionaire former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose influence the palace and army have sought to extricate from Thai politics for much of this century. Thaksin scored landslide election victories in 2001 and 2005 by cultivating the support of voters in the previously neglected rural north and northeast. This earned him the enmity of the establishment arrayed around the institutions of the monarchy and the Royal Thai Army, which viewed Thaksin’s popularity as a direct threat to its power and prerogatives.

Since then, parties associated with Thaksin have won every election, forcing the establishment to resort to a range of undemocratic methods to remove Thaksinite governments from power, from military coups (in 2006 and 2014) to contorted legal rulings. It is likely to prevail once again on May 14, with the Suan Dusit Poll showing that it commands the support of 41.37 percent of respondents.

In recent months, however, there have been reports that the pragmatic PTP, which is being led into the election by Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtorn Shinawatra, has reached a political compact of sorts with the Thai establishment. Some have even suggested that it might even consider a “Faustian bargain” with the PPRP, joining with it to form the next government in a bid to spell an end to the country’s perpetual political crisis. However, the possibility that a Pheu Thai government would pave the way for Thaksin’s return from globe-trotting exile remains a serious concern for conservatives.

As the Thai Enquirer reported, it is this connection that would offer a possible justification for the party’s dissolution. “The case against Pheu Thai will hinge on whether or not the establishment can prove that an outside hand was influencing and funding the party,” it reported. “Should that be proven, the party could risk dissolution.” The “outside hand” here, of course, is that of Thaksin himself.

Dissolution of the MFP is much more likely than the PTP, let alone both. After all, the party’s predecessor, the Future Forward Party, was dissolved by the courts on a technicality in February 2020, after coming in third in the general election the year before. The party’s disbanding was one of the main catalysts for the string of youth-led mass protests that took place in late 2020 and early 2021.

Whatever happens, a red line for the conservatives would be an alliance between the two opposition parties. In political terms, such a coalition makes a good deal of sense. Together, the two parties command the support of more than 60 percent of the Thai electorate, if the aforementioned Suan Dusit Poll is to be believed. They also dominate in complementary chunks of the electorate, with the MFP dominating among the youth and PTP among every other age group. Leaving aside whether it would be enough to surmount the veto of the military-appointed Senate over the selection of the next prime minister, joining with MFP would clearly put a target on Pheu Thai’s back, given the perceived threats posed by its progressive agenda, to say nothing of its pledge to reform Article 112.

Whatever decision conservative powerbrokers make, there will be important international repercussions. The 2014 coup led a number of Western nations to suspend cooperation with Thailand on several fronts, and the dissolution of one or both of the country’s major opposition parties. This is not even figuring in the domestic upheaval that would very likely follow any such move.

The government’s reputation would probably survive the dissolution of the smaller MFP, but the banning of Pheu Thai, a party likely to command the support of four in 10 voters (let alone both parties), would bring a damaging international backlash. As Gregory Raymond of the Australian National University wrote on Twitter, “The crushing of democratic aspirations will see Thailand sink deeper into the mire as an economically stagnant pariah state increasingly beholden to China.”