Thailand’s Pheu Thai Party (PTP) yesterday announced that it had gained the support from a key military-backed party for its attempt to form a government, as Parliament prepares to select the country’s next prime minister next week.
The United Thai Nation Party, the party that fielded former coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha as its prime ministerial candidate in the general election on May 14, announced that it would will help Pheu Thai form a government.
“United Thai Party will join the government with Pheu Thai,” UTNP spokesperson Akaradej Wongpitakroj told journalists, as per The Associated Press. He added, “We agree to join in order to move the country forward together.”
The enlistment of the UTNP has brought the number of parties in the Pheu Thai-led coalition to 10: Pheu Thai, which holds 141 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives, followed by Bhumjaithai (71 seats), the UTNP (36), Chart Thai Pattana (10), Prachachart (9), Chart Pattana Kla (2), Pheu Tai Ruam Palang (2), the Party of Thai Counties (1), Palang Sangkhom Mai (1), and Seri Ruam Thai (1). Together these parties now hold a majority of 274 seats.
As journalist Erich Parpart explained yesterday, four other parties, including the current ruling party, the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), have pledged to vote for Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate; if they fulfill their promises, this would leave the coalition needing just 58 votes from the military-appointed Senate in order to confirm its candidate during the next joint session of Parliament. (The party will require a majority of 375 seats from both houses.) As Parpart noted, “PPRP leader Prawit Wongsuwan has direct control over about 100 senators, making this a seemingly done deal.”
Parliament is set to convene on August 22 to vote for the prime minister.
Whether or not it leads to the formation of a new government, the agreement between Pheu Thai and the UTNP reflects a stunning realignment in Thai politics, uniting two forces that have been often bitterly opposed for much of the past two decades.
While the UTNP is a relatively new party, it represents the military-backed conservative establishment that Pheu Thai, and other parties associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have spent nearly two decades opposing. The party even fielded Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, who first came to power in a coup against a Pheu Thai-led government in 2014, as its prime ministerial candidate.
The realignment is only explicable in light of the emergence of the Move Forward Party (MFP), which won a plurality of seats in the House of Representatives at May’s general election. Unlike Pheu Thai and the other parties previously associated with Thaksin, which were seen to pose a threat to the traditional Thai elite based around the palace and the armed forces, the MFP made its anti-establishment intentions explicit. It proposed to break up economic monopolies, reform the military, end conscription, and – most explosively – amend Article 112 of the Thai penal code. Known often as the lese-majeste law, the article criminalizes any criticisms of the monarchy and the king, and has been used to quash criticisms of the ruling establishment.
It was this ambitious agenda and the popularity that it seemingly commanded among young Thais that led conservative forces to close ranks and prevent the MFP from forming a government in July. Opposed by most of the military-appointed Senate, the party was subsequently forced to drop out of the coalition that it had formed with Pheu Thai in order to end nearly a decade of military and military-backed rule.
Absent the MFP’s support, Pheu Thai has now been forced to seek support from more conservative forces in its bid to form a government – including forces that have fought a bitter political war against it since Thaksin was overthrown in a coup in 2006.
For the PTP, the decision to join hands with the UTNP is a risky move. Even though Prayut will not be part of the new government – last month he announced his retirement from politics – the Pheu Thai support base has the right to feel betrayed by the party leadership’s decision to join hands with its former antagonist. Even prior to this latest announcement, members of the “red shirt” movement that supported Thaksin were expressing their disappointment and anger over the decisions of the party’s leadership.
As the writer Watcharin Rattanataymee argued in The Diplomat this week, Pheu Thai’s opponents, including Move Forward, “will have an easy job of painting the PTP as politically unprincipled, and their remaining voters as personality cultists of the Shinawatra family.”
All of this said, Thailand’s conservatives have clearly not ended their battle against parties advocating a more progressive and democratic future for Thailand; they have simply shifted their focus to what they view as the more threatening target. But if the MFP was born out of the popular frustration with the establishment’s repeated obstructions of Thaksin-aligned governments, the repeated obstruction of the MFP produces points in only one direction: more radicalization and polarization in the years to come.