More than a month after Thailand’s general election, it is still unclear who will be the country’s next prime minister. The leader of the biggest party is not guaranteed to form a government under an electoral system that was drafted favor the conservative establishment. To be prime minister, a candidate must have a majority in both houses of parliament – or at least 376 votes. This includes the 250-seat member Senate, which has been selected entirely by the military and can be expected to support a pro-military party.
As a result, the victorious Move Forward Party (MFP), which won 151 seats in the House of Representatives, will face a difficult time garnering the 376 seats necessary to elect its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, as the next prime minister. The eight-party coalition that the MFP leads holds just 313 seats. Aside from this challenge, Pita faces a number of legal challenges, including over his ownership of shares in the defunct broadcaster iTV.
Although the Election Commission (EC) has dismissed petitions filed against Pita regarding the iTV shares on technical grounds, it announced last week that it would pursue its own investigation into Pita for allegedly registering his electoral candidacy despite knowing he might be unqualified to run in the recent election. If found guilty, this offense is punishable by up 10 years imprisonment and a substantial fine. This, however, is not the end of the iTV shareholding case. This can still be submitted to the Constitutional Court if a minimum of 50 MPs or 25 senators seek a verdict on Pita’s status as an MP. This could result in his suspension from duty and bar him from putting his name forward as prime minister.
Leaving that aside, it seems unlikely that the MFP will succeed in securing the 376 votes to become prime minister. If the party fails to secure these seats during the first voting session, it is unlikely that the runner-up, the Pheu Thai Party, which won 141 seats, would allow Move Forward to try for a second-round vote. Pheu Thai will likely take this opportunity to nominate its own prime minister candidate under the same coalition arrangement with the MFP or to assemble an alternative coalition government to support its candidate. If this scenario occurs, it is highly possible that Pheu Thai will seek support from the third- and fourth-tier parties, Bhumjaithai and the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party, both of which are part of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s current conservative government.
Of course, this would be a risky choice for Pheu Thai, as it would tarnish the party’s pro-democratic reputation and potentially damage its support in the next election. But without any pro-military party in the coalition, it will be difficult for Pheu Thai to secure the necessary votes from the Senate. Without those votes, Prayut will remain in office as acting prime minister.
In parliamentary democracies, it is rare to see the first and second place parties joining in a coalition government. When the election winners form a government, the runners-up generally become the leader of the opposition in parliament. Cooperation between the largest parties in parliament may weaken parliamentary procedure and lead to less-than-democratic outcomes, as evident in Indonesia where a number of major parties joined the coalition government, leaving only small parties in opposition. This scenario incapacitates opposition parties, who are insufficiently strong to monitor government policies. In the case of Thailand, if the MFP and Pheu Thai do form a coalition government, the opposition will be weak, holding just 181 out of 500 seats in parliament, preventing them from monitoring and debating government policy.
For Pheu Thai, forming a coalition government with pro-military parties will allow the party more negotiating power over cabinet seats and policy implementation than it currently has with Move Forward. More importantly, Pheu Thai would gain support from the Senate. This scenario could well occur if MFP fails to surmount the 376-seat threshold in the first round of parliamentary voting for the prime minister. In the first round of voting, it is possible that Pita will be nominated as a prime minister candidate without any competing candidates. If he fails, this move would publicly affirm that the MFP candidate does not have sufficient support from both houses of parliament for a majority. A second round might see either the name of a Pheu Thai candidate or one of the other conservative parties, likely General Prawit Wongsuwan, the leader of the PPRP, proposed for prime minister. This would potentially force Move Forward into the opposition.
Pita’s road to power is therefore strewn with obstacles. And even if the MFP ends up leading the government, there is a possibility of more legal challenges that will threaten the survival of the party and its executive members. But even if it does not succeed in taking power this year, this is not the end for the MFP. The party would likely win a landslide victory at the next election, setting up a growing competitive dynamic with the party that has long dominated Thai politics: Pheu Thai.