Thai politics: keeping your friends close, but your rivals closer

By Craig Keating, Former Senior Analyst, Australia’s Office of National Assessments (ONA)

Following Thailand’s 14 May general election, second-placed Pheu Thai Party may yet have its eyes on leading Thailand’s next government, regardless of what it is telling the first-ranked Move Forward Party, writes Craig Keating.

Unaccustomed to losing an election, Thailand’s Pheu Thai Party says it will “respect people’s decisions”. However, it may hope the first-placed Move Forward Party fails to form government—despite Pheu Thai’s claim it would not make a rival move to form a coalition.

Pheu Thai has given less than whole-hearted support to its fellow opposition party. Deputy Leader, Sutin Klungsang, said it would be “another story” if Move Forward fails to get sufficient backing from other parties. Indeed, some observers believe Pheu Thai, by putting the onus on Move Forward to create a workable government, is keeping its options open, should the latter fall short.

Pheu Thai’s Gambit

A contrary argument is it is not in Pheu Thai’s longer-term interests to rankle the youthful demographic that supported Move Forward. However, I find the following three factors for Pheu Thai to prioritise its short-term interests more compelling.

Firstly, Pheu Thai is never going to become more reformist than Move Forward. Prior to the election, Move Forward promoted change – such as ending business monopolies and amending the controversial Section 112 of the Criminal Code , which covers defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, or heir apparent. And it said it would not team up with parties in the government of outgoing prime minister and 2014 coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha.

In contrast, Pheu Thai promised populism with cash handouts equivalent to the monthly minimum wage to those aged 16 and over, and equivocated on reforming Section 112. As for competition law reform, the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, Pheu Thai’s “spiritual leader” and father of current prime ministerial hopeful Paetongtarn Shinawatra, benefitted greatly from government concessions. Even the party’s belated promise not to form government with parties led by coup leaders could be interpreted as a panicked response to Move Forward’s growing popularity.

Secondly, Pheu Thai’s support base has greatest been among poorer rural voters, who backed it in the knowledge it would deliver on its promises of cash handouts. Yet the party still lost ground in some traditional strongholds to Move Forward. If Pheu Thai cannot deliver on its electoral promises (much harder, if it plays second-fiddle to Move Forward), its support in this ageing cohort will likely fall further, leaving it just another of Thailand’s mid-sized parties.

Thirdly, the succession of Shinawatra-headed parties – Pheu Thai being the latest incarnation – still seems beholden to family patriarch Thaksin. The 73-year-old, who resides mostly in Dubai, faces jail should he return, although he seems intent to do so if the terms are favourable. He could judge time is running out to again play an active, overt role in politics.

If Move Forward fails to form government, Pheu Thai could sell its volte-face as the only way to break the political deadlock. By apparently having supported Move Forward’s attempt, it could claim its hands were clean, as it had given Move Forward every chance.

And Move Forward’s success is not certain. On 23 May, it joined eight other parties in signing a 23-point MoU on policies that would form the basis of a coalition of 313 MPs in the 500-seat lower house. But because Thailand’s 2019 constitution gives the country’s 250 senators – all handpicked by military leaders – a vote on who becomes prime minister, the real target to form a government is 376 votes.

Move Forward’s youthful and articulate leader Pita Limjaroenrat reportedly can count on the support of 15 senators. However, this still leaves him 48 votes short. Pita also faces legal land mines. The senate set up a panel to look into his past; and he could be disbarred as an MP over allegations he owns shares in a long-defunct media organisation – the government-appointed Electoral Commission is still to rule on his eligibility.

Forced to choose between a reforming Move Forward that threatens its interests and a neo-conservative Pheu Thai – with which they likely feel they could negotiate – Thailand’s conservative forces would likely grudgingly side with the latter. Already some senators have alluded to a possible Pheu Thai-led government. One said, “The political party that wins the most seats has the right to gather support and form a government first. If it fails, the party that wins the second-largest number of seats will be given a chance.”

Many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip

The drawn-out process to finalise the election results gives plenty of time for Move Forward’s seeming victory to turn to ashes. The deadline for announcing the official results is 13 July and Parliament chooses the prime minister in August.

Success depends on Move Forward’s ability to convince powerful conservative Thais that it will demonstrate flexibility in implementing its core goals, particularly those bearing on traditional moral and royal touchstones. But it won’t be easy to balance political compromise with supporter expectations for radical reform.

Already there are signs Move Forward may stumble on this political tightrope. It hurriedly backtracked from including the Chartpattanakla Party in its alliance following a backlash from its supporters. It is fudging demands for reform of Section 112. While still claiming this is a key party policy, it is not asking partners to support it – and alone it lacks the numbers in parliament. Its inexperienced MPs could undermine relations with coalition partners and conservatives with cavalier remarks. Already one of its MPs-elect had to apologise for a statement attacking the Bangkok government, which proved to be baseless.

So, second-placed Pheu Thai could yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Still, any success would likely prove ephemeral. It would almost certainly have to reach an understanding with Thailand’s conservative forces, most notably to kick the royal defamation law reform can down the road.

However, it also would have to reconcile the millions of Move Forward supporters – who took to the streets when the party’s predecessor was dissolved in 2020 by a curious court decision that a loan from its founder violated election laws. Much would depend on Pheu Thai’s ability to convince them that a Move Forward-led government was an impossibility, and that Pheu Thai was the only viable alternative to prevent a conservative-led minority government – a herculean task.

Whether Move Forward or Pheu Thai end up heading the next government, it’s likely Thailand’s conservatives will seek to undermine the government through quasi-legal means, as happened in the past.

Coup prospects appear much less likely than in the past. In 2019, the government ceded control of key army units in Bangkok to King Vajiralongkorn, forces central to any putsch. The King’s loyalists also hold key command positions. Other units were moved out of the capital, making it harder for the army to seize power without royal approval. So, a future coup would either have the King’s clear blessing or direction, or it would be a move by the army against the palace. Either would harm the palace’s standing.

Moving forward

The election outcome appears to confirm an increasing number of Thais are rejecting traditional patron-client relationships, on which traditional parties, including Pheu Thai, have relied – though faster than I predicted in 2021.

Prayuth may have inadvertently helped. By exposing the inability of patron-client politics to protect lives and livelihoods during the COVID-19 pandemic, his government likely hastened nascent demands for change. By holding on to power for so long and preventing overt politicking until just prior to the 2019 elections, he created a political void which a new politically-aware cohort free from the baggage of past political groups is filling. Although there may be setbacks, this trend will likely continue, as demographic change favours the young.

Craig Keating is a former senior analyst with Australia’s Office of National Assessments (ONA). Prior to joining ONA, he held numerous positions with the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID)

Image credit: Sanook