Fresh from its win at Thailand’s general election on May 14, the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) has signed an agreement with seven other parties on a joint policy platform, which includes a number of ambitious policies but makes no mention of the country’s controversial lese-majeste law.
The MFP, which is led by 42-year-old businessman Pita Limjaroenrat, won an impressive victory in the election, securing a projected 152 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives. The 23-point agreement, which was unveiled at a press conference in Bangkok yesterday, is an attempt to lock in the support of the seven parties that have joined the MFP’s coalition, with an eye to winning Pita’s election as prime minister when the parliament meets for a joint session in July.
The pact enshrines a number of the MFP’s most radical politics. These include its plans to draft a new and genuinely democratic constitution, reverse the country’s extreme centralization of administrative power, and abolish military conscription in peacetime. The coalition has also agreed to legalize same-sex marriage, reform the police, military, judiciary, and civil service, and to “cancel monopolies and support fair competition in trade in all industries.” Curiously, for a progressive coalition, it plans to restore the controls on the production and sale of marijuana that were removed after de facto decriminalization last year.
At the press conference, Pita said the pact was “about shared values and commonalities and shared agenda and accountability,” according to Reuters. “All parties can propose their own policies but must not violate this agreement through ministries.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that the pact does not include the most controversial part of the MFP’s platform: its promise to amend Article 112 of the Thai penal code. Otherwise known as the lese-majeste law, the provision effectively outlaws criticisms of the monarchy and provides for penalties of up to 15 years in prison. In practice, it has been used to quell any critical discussion of the monarchy’s role in Thai politics, and the agglomerations of wealth and power that it helps to sustain.
The proposal, which emerged from the youth-led mass demonstrations of late 2020 and early 2021, against whose leaders the lese-majeste law was later employed, was a popular part of the MFP’s campaign platform. It enjoyed particularly strong support among first-time voters and other young Thais, who have grown fed up with military rule and the paralyzing state-enforced deference to the monarchy.
The absence of the lese-majeste policy from the coalition pact might frustrate the MFP’s supporters, but it is probably a necessary concession to political reality. The MFP’s eight-party coalition, which includes the Pheu Thai Party, Prachachat Party, Thai Sang Thai Party, and four smaller parties, holds 313 seats in the House. This is a healthy majority, but falls short of the 376 parliamentary votes that it will need to elect Pita prime minister when parliament meets in a joint session in July. As a result, the party will need to convince conservative parliamentarians or members of the military-appointed Senate – reactionary conservatives by definition – to support its candidate for prime minister.
That will be hard enough even without the lese-majeste reform pledge, given the rest of the MFP’s policy platform, and almost impossible if it is included. While open discussion of the monarchy and its role in Thai politics has become more common in recent years, it remains taboo across much of the country’s political spectrum. Thai conservatives staunchly oppose any changes to Article 112, and the most extreme fringe of the royalist movement is already attempting to use it as a means of disqualifying Pita and the MFP from forming the next government.
Yesterday, the ultra-royalist activist Suwit Thongprasert filed a petition with the Election Commission, arguing that the MFP’s stance on lese-majeste amounted to an attempt to overturn Thailand’s constitutional monarchy, and requesting that it dissolve the party. With such legal challenges afoot, even the parties inside the MFP’s coalition have blanched at supporting anything that might be construed as an attack on the palace.
The Bangkok Post, citing a source close to the coalition negotiations, reported yesterday that the agreement was revised at the request of coalition partners, including Pheu Thai, to include a phrase stating that “the missions of the MFP-led government must not affect the democratic system with the king as head of state and the revered status of the king who cannot be violated.”
According to Reuters, Pita said yesterday he did not think his party’s attempt to reform Article 112 would prove an obstacle to support from the Senate. “We have a team to explain how to amend it so it cannot be used as a political tool… this will ease the concern of senators,” he told reporters. While that remains to be seen, it is clear that the lese-majeste issue would make it a lot more difficult.
All said, it is no surprise that the MFP has opted to shelve lese-majeste reform in order to preserve the remainder of the agenda that propelled the party to its victory on May 14. But even if there is no action on Article 112 under Pita’s prime ministership, this is clearly not the end of the story. The door to reform of the lese-majeste provision, and perhaps the powers and prerogatives of the monarchy more broadly, has been forced open a crack since 2020, and the issue is being debated openly for the first time in decades. The coming years may will bring a further evolution in Thai politics that brings such a policy into the realm of the possible.