After the progressive Move Forward Party’s dominant performance in Thailand’s 15 May parliamentary election, it seemed logical that party leader Pita Limjaroenrat would become the country’s next prime minister.
The 42-year-old Harvard graduate and former Grab executive is, after all, the head of the largest party in parliament, supported by a coalition including the majority of the legislature’s elected representatives. However, expert opinion paints a more fraught picture.
Given the obstacle course of legal challenges, defiant senators and political parties rendered unviable partners due to past associations with the military, some question whether the military-appointed Senate will prevent Move Forward from participating in government altogether. Parliament is expected to vote for a new prime minister today and, if Pita is unable to secure the premiership, Thailand could witness the start of an uncertain period of political deadlock that could fly in the face of the opposition’s electoral victory.
“I think that [the Move Forward Party] will be denied the speakership, they will be denied the premiership, and I think Move Forward will be denied a role in the coalition government,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Pita’s potential route to the prime minister’s office is an arduous one. Just the day before the vote, the Election Commission requested the Constitutional Court suspend Pita over criminal accusations that he’d run for office while aware he might be ineligible due to owning a small stake in a defunct media company.
The court had already agreed to hear a case claiming that Move Forward’s intent to change Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law, which criminalises critique of the monarchy, amounts to an attempt to overthrow the country’s system of governance.
The road through parliament may also be rocky. The eight-party coalition supporting him in his premiership bid has only 312 members, leaving it 64 votes short of the majority 376 it needs to succeed in selecting Pita as prime minister.
These remaining votes will have to come either from members of parliament in parties outside Move Forward’s coalition or from the Senate formed in the wake of the military’s 2014 coup. While Move Forward deputy leader Sirikanya Tansakun has stated the party should have the necessary backing to elect Pita in the first round of voting, they have yet to provide any concrete information on the extent of their support in the Senate, leaving the outcome of the 13 July vote unclear.
I don’t think that the senators, already so conservative, will be intimidated. … In fact, [protests] might push them farther away from Pita.Paul Chambers, Thai politics specialist at Naresuan University
After this, a variety of scenarios will become possible, ranging from a government led by another one of Move Forward’s coalition members to the declaration of martial law. There is no limit to the number of rounds of voting, meaning the selection process could either end quickly or drag on for weeks or months until a candidate receives enough votes to become prime minister.
It is currently unclear how many times Move Forward will attempt to put forward Pita as a candidate for prime minister. While mass protests are likely to occur if the Senate votes down Pita’s premiership bid, said Paul Chambers, a specialist on Thai politics at Naresuan University, they are unlikely to significantly impact the overall outcome of the selection process.
“I don’t think that the senators, already so conservative, will be intimidated,” said Chambers. “In fact, [protests] might push them farther away from Pita.”
With no way to force Pita through, and no alternative candidates for prime minister to put forward, Move Forward could be pressed to allow a candidate from one of its coalition partners to make a bid for the premiership.
Any alternative candidate put forward by the coalition would probably come from Pheu Thai, the second-largest party in the grouping. However, a Pheu Thai-led coalition is likely to face many of the same challenges in securing enough votes in the Senate so long as it affiliates with Move Forward.
Thitinan explained many senators are concerned about Move Forward’s reform agenda, especially the party’s position on amending the country’s lèse-majesté laws that criminalise critique of the monarchy.
The lèse-majesté amendment is really the dam gate of wider reforms of the monarchy and the military,Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University
“The lèse-majesté amendment is really the dam gate of wider reforms of the monarchy and the military,” Thitinan said. “With Move Forward within the coalition with Pheu Thai, the Senate might not vote for [Pheu Thai’s candidate].”
If the eight-party coalition currently attempting to form a government is unable to get enough votes to select a prime minister, there are two alternative options: Pheu Thai could form a coalition government including a number of parties that participated in the previous government, or the parties of the incumbent government could attempt to remain in power by forming a minority government.
Forming a coalition including military-linked parties from the previous government such as the Democrat Party or Palang Pacharat would lead Pheu Thai to incur both short-term and long-term political costs, according to Chambers.
In the short-term, if the Senate refuses to support a Pheu Thai candidate, the party may have to support a candidate from one of its coalition partners to be prime minister, despite being the largest party in the group. In the long-term, “many voters would determine that PT betrayed progressive policies for mere self-interest”, Chambers said. “This could reduce the amount of seats PT gets in the next election.”
While not ideal, such an arrangement would probably still be more stable than a minority government, which would lack a majority in the lower house of parliament and likely struggle to pass legislation. The heads of both the Bhumjaithai and the United Thai Nation parties, two of the three parties required to make forming such a minority government feasible, have already publicly stated their opposition to that route.
A minority government would also be vulnerable to removal by the opposition, Chambers noted. After the Senate’s legal right to vote on a prime minister expires in May 2024, he explained, a coalition composed solely of the incumbent parties would be unable to prevent their removal by the opposition.
While the process of forming a new government drags on, former general Prayuth Chan-ocha will remain prime minister and continue to preside over a caretaker government. If the process were to drag on for months, policy decisions that would ordinarily be made by the new government would instead end up being made by Prayuth’s caretaker government.
“Prayuth would probably be allowed to pass an emergency budget for the next year [and] he would also affect the next military reshuffle,” said Chambers.
That reshuffle, expected this year, marks the first time in more than two decades that the heads of all branches of the armed forces and police will be rotated concurrently. The move is seen as an important opportunity for any new, reformist government to assert more civilian control over Thailand’s security apparatus.
With so much at stake, Chambers said the spectre of military intervention always lurks in the wings if the process of government formation proves too time-consuming or chaotic.
“Months of parliamentary stalemate without a prime minister and growing demonstrations would lead to caretaker Prime Minister Prayuth Chanocha declaring martial law (a quiet coup spearheaded by the military),” he wrote in a message.