Pita’s Prime Ministerial Bid Has Ended. What’s Next For Thai Politics?

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Pita’s Prime Ministerial Bid Has Ended. What’s Next For Thai Politics?

By obstructing the Move Forward Party from forming the government, conservative forces are courting political crisis.

Pita’s Prime Ministerial Bid Has Ended. What’s Next For Thai Politics?

Pita Limjaroenrat and fellow lawmakers of the Move Forward Party (MFP) assemble in Parliament ahead of its prime ministerial vote, July 13, 2023.

Credit: Pita Limjaroenrat – พิธา ลิ้มเจริญรัตน์

Thailand’s opposition forces stand at a crossroads after conservative parliamentarians on Wednesday blocked the progressive leader Pita Limjaroenrat from renominating himself for a second prime ministerial vote, all but ending his chances of taking the country’s top office.

In the first parliamentary vote on July 13, the leader of the Move Forward Party (MFP) fell short of the 375 votes that he needed to become Thailand’s next prime minister. Despite winning the most seats in the May election and leading a coalition that holds a 312-seat majority in the 500-seat House of Representatives, the MFP’s path to power was blocked by the Senate, whose 250 military-appointed members participated in the vote.

Wednesday’s scheduled second ballot did not even eventuate after conservative lawmakers argued that it was unconstitutional for Pita to put his name forward a second time, a question that House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha chose to put to a vote. A motion to deny Pita a second chance was subsequently passed by a vote of 395 to 312, with eight abstentions.

Just hours before the vote, the Constitutional Court also suspended Pita from Parliament pending an investigation into whether he violated election laws – one of several complaints that are seeking his expulsion from the legislature. While this alone does not rule him out of the running for prime minister, the Senate has shown that it will continue to block any further attempts to make Pita the country’s next leader.

With the next prime ministerial vote set to take place on July 27, the identity of Thailand’s next leader remains unclear – as does the future of the eight-party opposition coalition led by the MFP. Today, the party’s Secretary-General Chaitawat Tulathon said that the PTP would now have the chance to nominate the next candidate for PM.

In pole position is the real estate developer Srettha Thavisin, who is perceived as business-friendly and relatively palatable to conservatives. In particular, he is free of the stigma of being related to fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. (Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra led the PTP during its election campaign and was its first prime ministerial candidate.)

Whether Pheu Thai could take office with the MFP by its side remains uncertain. Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of the Bhumjaithai party, which won 71 seats in the election, has already indicated that his party will not support a PTP candidate for prime minister as long as the MFP remains in the coalition.

As Ken Mathis Lohatepanont argued in the Thai Enquirer yesterday, “it has become evident – despite all protests to the contrary by anyone – that Move Forward’s position in the future government coalition is now unsustainable. Even without Pita at the head, it appears more likely than not that any prime ministerial candidate with Move Forward support is doomed.”

Whether Pheu Thai would accept this bargain and join hands with conservative parties to cast the MFP back into the wilderness of opposition, remains to be seen. Such a move would likely undermine its reputation as an anti-establishment alternative, already damaged by pre-election rumors that it was considering joining a coalition with conservative parties and lead to a further defection of support to Move Forward. The party may well decide that the long-term cost is not worth the short-term benefit of power. It also remains unclear whether the MFP would be willing to disavow its most controversial policy – its pledge to amend the country’s lese-majeste law – in order to gain the support necessary to form a government under a Pheu Thai candidate, nor whether this would placate conservatives.

The other main alternative is the formation of a minoritarian conservative government, perhaps under Prawit Wongsuwan, the head of the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP). Despite winning just 40 seats in the election, the PPRP could conceivably cobble together a coalition with the help of the Senate and conservative parties such as Bhumjaithai (71 seats), the United Thai Nation Party (36 seats), and the Democrats (25 seats).

Either of these outcomes – a PTP coalition without the MFP, or a military-backed minority government led by one of the election’s biggest losers – would risk inflaming the political situation in Thailand and prompting a return to street politics.

On Wednesday evening, around a thousand people assembled at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument as three student groups issued a statement calling for the Thai people “to rise and fight” against the subversion of the people’s will by the military-appointed Senate.

“Today marks yet another shameful day in Thailand’s already tumultuous and chaotic history,” the student groups stated. “We urge every Thai citizen to rise and resist those in power through every means available to us, both in thought and action… We have endured enough and realize the undeniable truth that they have never relinquished ownership of this country to the people.”

The longer-term patterns point in the direction of crisis. In some ways, the MFP, like its predecessor Future Forward, was a product of the establishment’s repeated obstructions of governments aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra, whose parties prior to this year had won every election since 2001. The dissolution on flimsy legal grounds of the Future Forward Party in early 2020 led to a campaign of mass protests that pushed critiques of Thailand’s establishment into hitherto uncharted waters, directly questioning the power and prerogatives of the Thai monarchy.

The MFP could well build on the current disillusionment to win an even greater majority at the next election, borne by a wave of support from young Thais less inhibited by the political taboos about the monarchy. But the military establishment has historically shown few compunctions in intervening when its interests are threatened. “What we’ve seen since 2006 is that goalposts for elected governments are always moved in Thailand (not in a good way),” Gregory Raymond of the Australian National University wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, “and so why will it be any different at the next election?”

This dialectic appears to point in the direction of more popular demoralization, more conservative pushback, and more radical demands for reform. The endpoint could be genuine democracy. It could also be conflict.