Nearly three months after winning Thailand’s general election, the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) has been excluded from the coalition aiming to form the country’s next government, due to conservative opposition to its policies.
Chonlanan Srikaew of the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), the MFP’s erstwhile coalition partner, told a news conference yesterday that the MFP would be departing the eight-party coalition that it has led since the May 14 election. It was clear, he said, that the MFP’s critical stance on the monarchy, which he called “the important institution of our country,” had prevented the coalition from rallying enough votes in Parliament to confirm a new prime minister.
“The Pheu Thai Party would like to express its sincerity to our friends in all political parties and the Senate, including the people, that this is the way we can preserve the important institution of the country as the cornerstone of all people in the nation, and at the same time push forward the demands of the people under these restrictions,” Chonlanan read from a party statement. Parliament will convene tomorrow to make a third attempt to confirm a prime minister, who will then form the country’s next government.
A split between Move Forward and Pheu Thai, which won 151 and 140 seats in the House of Representatives, respectively, at the May 14 election, has had a sense of inevitability to it, due to concerted conservative opposition to the MFP’s progressive policy agenda. Most notably, the MFP has pledged to amend the lese-majeste law, which bans criticism of the country’s monarchy.
The MFP has now twice failed to have its leader Pita Limjaroenrat elected prime minister, in large part because of the military-appointed 250-person Senate. After the second failed attempt to form government on July 19, the MFP said that it would allow Pheu Thai to put forward its own candidate, and the party has since nominated Srettha Thavisin, a real estate developer with almost no political experience. However, senators and conservative House members have said in recent weeks that they will not support any coalition that includes the MFP, effectively presenting the PTP with the choice between cutting Move Forward loose or joining it in opposition.
That Pheu Thai would opt to head Thailand’s next government is unsurprising, though its “betrayal” has prompted anger from MFP supporters. Since yesterday, the Twitter hashtag #ก้าวไกล, the Thai name of the party, was trending, attached to angry denunciations of the party. During yesterday’s press conference, dozens of protesters rallied outside the Pheu Thai headquarters, setting fire to effigies of party leaders as the news of the MFP’s defenestration was announced.
Pheu Thai’s decision to go it alone has led some to predict the party’s longer-term demise. While the party will no doubt lose some supporters to the MFP, it may be too early to write its obituary. As Napon Jatusripitak of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute wrote in a Twitter thread on July 24, “most people who voted for Pheu Thai did so with the expectation that Pheu Thai would form the government, which sets it apart from the MFP whose support reflects a more diverse range of aspirations and grievances.” As a result, “sticking with the MFP and failing to form and lead a governing coalition could actually be more detrimental” to the party over the long term.
There is some merit to this argument. While Pheu Thai has adopted a pro-democracy orientation by default, having been repeatedly obstructed by the military and conservative legal establishment, it is less ideologically oriented and certainly less radical than Move Forward. Despite Pheu Thai’s pro-democracy bona fides, Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote yesterday, the party “always remained highly transactional and did not push for the type of major institutional changes, like lese-majeste reform, that are becoming increasingly popular in Thailand.”
Much hinges on exactly what coalition partners it involves, and there are strong indication that Pheu Thai will opt for a coalition that excludes the “uncles” – i.e., Prayut Chan-o-cha and Prawit Wongsuwan – who led the 2014 coup against Pheu Thai. As an anonymous Move Forward MP told the Thai Enquirer yesterday, negotiations are ongoing between the MFP and PTP to ensure that neither of the former coup leaders’ parties are in government.
“We are ready to sacrifice our position even though we won the most number of seats and move to the opposition if it means not having the two generals in government,” said the MFP parliamentarian. “We are willing to move to the opposition and still vote for the [Pheu Thai] prime minister candidate if that means we end the power of the Senate and the two generals now.”
Much also depends on what Pheu Thai manages to achieve once in power. The party has pledged to implement a number of the policies championed by the MFP, including marriage equality, the end of military conscription, and the break-up of the country’s powerful alcohol monopolies. It has also promised to reform the constitution in a more democratic direction and then to hold new elections once these changes are in place. Only time will tell whether the party is willing or able to implement these policies, which will undoubtedly be resisted by conservative forces who have long feared Pheu Thai’s potential to undermine the status quo.
As for the MFP, over the longer term it could well benefit from the present scenario, absorbing disillusioned Pheu Thai supporters and positioning itself as a rallying point for genuine democratic reform. Yet in a political system where the rules have been so frequently scrapped and rewritten to benefit the country’s elites, there is no guarantee that time will bring the MFP its reward.
After reconciling himself to the possible return from self-exile of Pheu Thai’s leader Thaksin Shinawatra, a figure whose influence he spent years seeking to extricate from Thai politics, “yellow shirt” leader Sindhi Limthongkul declared on Monday that the only way to stop Move Forward from winning a majority at the next election is… another military coup.