Decisive vote for change in Thailand

In Thailand, coalition negotiations between parties take place with a wary eye on the military.
Image used for representational purpose only. (Express Illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for representational purpose only. (Express Illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha)

In last month’s general election, Thailand threw up a decisive result rejecting the military-backed government led by Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the incumbent PM and former army chief. Prayuth, as army chief, had ousted the caretaker government of PM Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014 in a military coup d’état. The opposition Move Forward Party [MFP], led by Pita Limjaroenrat and former PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party [PTP], now led by his daughter Paetongtang Shinawatra, routed the army-sponsored conservative opponents. 

 The MFP stunned the nation by winning the 152 seats, and the PTP came in second, bagging 141 seats in the lower house of Parliament. The Bhumjaithai Party came in third with 70 seats, The Palang Pracharath Party [PPP] won only 40 seats and Prayuth’s United Thai National Party [UTNP] only 36. The Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest and once ruling party, slipped to 25 seats and looming irrelevance.

The two leading parties now face the challenge of forming a coalition government, with the older PHP having to play a junior role in the potential coalition. A 60-day interim period follows the election for the Election Commission to confirm the result and pave the way for the new government. Coalitions in Thailand, like in many countries, are messy affairs and prone to instability.

In Thailand, democracy has had a rough ride. Military coups have regularly overthrown civilian governments ever since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. On average, there has been a coup nearly every seven years. Gen Prayuth Chan-O-Cha’s military coup in 2014 was the 21st in the last 75 years. Prayuth’s 2014 coup removed the elected caretaker government of PM Yingluck Shinawatra, who herself had already been removed from office by a manipulated court order. The 2006 coup had overthrown the elected government of PM Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s older brother. Both have chosen to live in exile to escape the military’s persecution. Hence, the probability, howsoever slim, of the military subverting this election cannot be ruled out. 

Over the years, military rulers have rewritten the Constitution to set up a parliamentary structure weighted in favour of the military and its allied parties. The 250 nominated Senators of the upper house are all government-appointed and supporters of the military. The 500-member lower house is elected. In 2019, the unelected upper house Senators voted to make Prayuth Chan-ocha the PM, though his PPP had won fewer seats in the lower house than the PHP. Since then, Prayuth formed a new party, the United Thai Nation Party [UTNP], in 2021 to fight the May 2023 election. The PPP, led by former army chief and Prayuth’s deputy, Prawit Wongsuwon, refused to back Prayuth.

The MFP is a centre-left social democratic party that supports removing the military’s influence in Thailand’s politics. Founded in 2014 as the Ruam Pattana Chart Thai Party, it changed its name to Phung Luang Party and after that to Move Forward Party [MFP] in 2020, after another of its incarnations, the Future Forward Party [FFP], was dissolved by controversial military-manipulated order by the Constitutional Court. The military saw the FFP as a political threat. 

 The charismatic youthful leader Pita Limjaroenrat leads the MFP and believes in rewriting the Constitution to make it more people-friendly. It hopes to abolish military conscription, reform the monarchy and amend Thailand’s draconian lese majeste laws. The MFP has the overwhelming support of Thailand’s young voters, who are tired of the military’s interference and manipulation of politics to retain power. The months-long student-led protest movement in 2020 focussed on these issues, and some MFP candidates led this reform movement. The MFP utilised social media in a major way to mobilise voters. Preceding the May 14 election was an unprecedented debate about the role of the military and the monarchy. 

 The new PM and government are likely to be announced next month. The MFP has announced a six-party alliance with the PTP and four other minor parties, with a tally of 310 seats---66 short of the majority of 376 [500+250]. The Senate, packed with military-nominated members, needs to support Pita, and he hopes to wean away the required numbers to reach 376.

Thailand’s post-Covid economic recovery has been rather slow compared to other countries in the region, and the Prayuth government’s inept handling of the Covid crisis angered ordinary Thais. Thailand’s vaccination programme was slow to take off, and this alienated Prayuth’s traditional supporters like the monarchists, doctors and conservative businesspersons. They sympathised with his political opponents, including the anti-government youth groups demanding change. The high voter turnout and the subsequent election results reflect widespread dissatisfaction with the Prayuth government. 

One cannot underestimate the military’s ability to subvert political processes by blocking the winning coalition from forming a government. In Thailand, coalition negotiations take place with a wary eye on the military, which can engineer a court ruling on a technicality to disqualify the MFP. They have done it before and can repeat it. Perhaps a full-fledged military coup is unlikely because the current army chief seems apolitical.

Moreover, Pita, a 42-year-old Harvard and MIT-educated politician, is still regarded as a novice in coalition building. This does not take away anything from the fact that he has led his party to an extraordinary victory in a political climate vitiated by the military. An unknown element is the attitude of King Vajiralongkorn, his courtiers, conservative politicians and pro-monarchists. So far, the King has not shown much keenness in politics. If he indicates his support for a new government, Prayuth and his supporters will not cross the red line. 

The monarchist-military alliance exercises institutional powers that could block the MFP from forming the next government if the King gives the nod. The military has a Brahmastra in its arsenal in the form of an unelected Senate under the military-drafted 2017 Constitution, which can veto appointments, even prime ministerial appointments, and legislation. The military has used this institution to cripple and unseat elected governments. But this time, the public mood is different, with young voters and the middle-class joining hands to demand change. Thailand is poised at a tipping point.

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Former Secretary in MEA and a former Ambassador to Thailand; he is a founder Director of DeepStrat, a think tank and a Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi

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