Thailand’s Move Forward Party Celebrates Election Win, Begins Coalition Talks

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Thailand’s Move Forward Party Celebrates Election Win, Begins Coalition Talks

MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat says that the party plans to form a coalition government with five other parties.

Thailand’s Move Forward Party Celebrates Election Win, Begins Coalition Talks

Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of Thailand’s Move Forward Party poses for a selfie with supporters on the campaign trail, May 11, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Pita Limjaroenrat – พิธา ลิ้มเจริญรัตน์

Thailand’s top two opposition parties are already in talks about forming a coalition to replace the current military-dominated government, a day after they swept the polls in a general election, capturing a solid majority of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives.

The Move Forward Party (MFP), a progressive party led by businessman Pita Limjaroenrat was placed first in the election and is projected to win 151 seats. Not far behind it came the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), a party associated with fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which was widely expected to come first. It is likely to claim 141 seats.

In a stinging rejection of the military’s role in politics, both parties won around triple the number of seats of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s United Thai Nation Party and the current ruling party, the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party.

At a press conference yesterday, Pita confirmed that he was already talking to Pheu Thai and five other parties about forming a coalition government that would hold an estimated 309 House seats, a partnership that Pheu Thai has reportedly stated that it supports. He did not name the other five parties.

“We are confident that we will secure a majority for the coalition to move forward,” Pita told reporters. He said that his party’s victory, which far exceeded even its own expectations, had opened up new possibilities for the country. “The sentiment of the era has changed and it’s right,” Pita added. “And today it’s a new day and hopefully it’s full of bright sunshine of hope going forward.”

Shortly afterward, the 42-year-old leader led orange-clad MFP supporters on a  celebratory march in Bangkok, where the party is projected to have won most, if not all, of the city’s 33 parliamentary seats. According to the South China Morning Post,

Shouting “Nayok Pita,” or “Prime Minister Pita,” several thousand Move Forward supporters on foot, cars, and motorcycles swarmed around the truck carrying Thailand’s latest star politician as it traveled from the symbolic Democracy Monument. An inflatable dinosaur – a symbol of the old powers his movement seeks to dislodge – was released above Pita’s head and flowers were passed to the Harvard graduate after he gave a speech thanking adoring supporters.

While the will of the people is clear, there’s a lot that needs to happen before the opposition can mark a definitive end to nine years of military and military-backed rule under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

The new parliament will not convene until July to select the country’s next prime minister, who will then form his or her chosen government and assemble a cabinet. This vote will include the 500 members of the House plus the 250 military-appointed members of the Senate, who are widely expected to support a conservative candidate – or at least block the most radical opposition alternative. As a result of the appointed Senate, a firewall created by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s military government in the 2017 Constitution, a party or coalition of parties must hold at least 376 House seats in order to overcome a possible Senate veto.

Since the MFP-led coalition will fall short of that, it is far from certain that Pita will take his deserved place as Thailand’s next prime minister. In order to get to the threshold of 376 seats, the party will need either the support of smaller conservative parties or some portion of the Senate (although in practice, the Senate will likely vote as a bloc.)

This could pose challenges. Though a centrist party in most other contexts, the MFP has what in Thai terms is viewed as a radical agenda. It has promised to end military conscription and break up centers of monopoly power. Most controversially, it has pushed for changes to the country’s lese-majeste law, which criminalizes criticism of the country’s monarchy. The law has been wielded with particular alacrity against the organizers of the youth-led pro-democracy demonstrations that took place in late 2020 and early 2021, with which MFP is closely associated. Two former leaders of the Future Forward Party, the party’s now-disbanded predecessor, have also been charged with lese-majeste.

It is very likely that even if Pita manages to win the support of the parties he needs to reach the 376 threshold, something that is not certain, he will almost certainly be viewed as too radical for the Senate. The influential senator Wanchai Sornsiri seemed to suggest as much yesterday when he said that he and others will have to take a number of factors into consideration when choosing the country’s next leader, including the party’s policies. “I’m not sure that the number one party will always able to form a government,” Wanchai said, according to Khaosod English.

When asked yesterday to speculate on the Senate’s stand on the appointment of the prime minister, Pita responded, “”I am not worried but I am not careless. It will be quite a hefty price to pay if someone is thinking about debunking the election result or forming a minority government.”

The PTP’s 36-year-old leader Paetongtarn Shinawatra is also likely to be a controversial choice for many conservatives, given that her father Thaksin is the establishment’s public enemy number one. One perhaps more palatable option to head an opposition coalition would be Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin, a real estate developer freer of Thaksinite and anti-monarchist associations.

However, all speculation is moot until the Election Commission validates the election results, a process that can take up to two months and will likely involve legal challenges from disgruntled royalists and conservatives. During the establishment’s long war against Thaksin, the Election Commission and the courts have frequently issued politically motivated rulings to hamstring or topple governments aligned with the former leader. A court ruling also disbanded the Future Forward Party on a technicality in 2020. Such developments would therefore not be surprising.

The main question would appear to be whether the establishment concedes to the overwhelming voice for change that voters registered at the polls on Sunday, with an eye to the longer term, or seeks somehow to restrict or undermine it. Either way, it will be some time before there is a conclusive answer on the color and shape of Thailand’s next government.