Thailand’s Quest for a New Prime Minister

By Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a member of the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok

Thailand’s prolonged quest for a new prime minister is a test of the country’s cohesion and talent for political compromise, writes Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee.

For 80 days, Thailand has been in a state of uncertainty awaiting the selection of a new prime minister. The process has been theatrical and labyrinthine, akin to the plot of a suspense movie. Everyone is on edge.

It began on 14 May with a stunning triumph in the general election for the Move Forward Party (MFP), which garnered 151 out of 500 seats in the House of Representatives. This marked a resounding rejection of the political forces of the military-backed establishment that has governed since the 2014 coup d'état. Eight anti-military parties formed a coalition to support MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat’s candidacy for prime minister. In a normal democratic system, the coalition, commanding 312 seats in the lower house, would have formed government with a substantial majority. However, the reality in Thailand is quite different: the 2016 Constitution requires the prime minister to be chosen in a joint sitting of the House and the 250-seat Senate, whose members are handpicked by the military. Moreover, power is heavily tilted in favor of the military network and its allies in the courts and state institutions.

Adding to the roadblocks, disagreements among the pro-democracy parties that existed before the elections have intensified. The pact uniting Pita’s eight-party coalition masked underlying differences over issues such as MFP’s plan to reform the royal defamation clause of the criminal code, the lèse-majesté law. There also were reservations from Muslim-based Prachachat Party about marriage equality and progressive liquor laws. Tension between the MFP and the second placed, Pheu Thai Party, which won 141 seats in the House, initially flared over the selection of a House Speaker, with both parties claiming the position.  A compromise saw the appointment of Wan Muhammad Noor Matha, from Prachachat, the third largest party in the coalition.

In the first round of voting for prime minister, with military-linked parties and senators arrayed against him, Pita fell short. When MFP sought a second round of voting several days later, parliament rejected Pita’s right to renominate twice in the same sitting, citing a procedural regulation. Pita then was suspended as an MP by the Constitutional Court due to allegations he owned shares in a media company in violation of election regulations. The institutions of state were closing in.

The MFP’s policy proposals include curbing big business monopolies, military reforms, and amending a law that criminalises insults to the monarchy. Business and social elites perceived this agenda as too radical. All parties from in the camp of the previous government, and most of the unelected Senate, now refuse to vote for a coalition that includes MFP.

But there are two further twists to the plot, prolonging a resolution. First, the Constitutional Court plans to issue a ruling on 16 August on the legality of parliament’s refusal to allow Pita to nominate for prime minister a second time. This move has delayed further voting on the PM. Second, Pheu Thai is seeking to nominate Srettha Thavisin, a real estate billionaire, following its departure from an unnatural partnership with MFP.

As the country moves into the next round of PM voting, the baton passes to Pheu Thai to see if it can form a coalition government. But to obtain a majority in the lower house without MFP, Pheu Thai must seek support from parties linked to the junta and responsible in the perception of its followers for economic hardship. During the election campaign, Pheu Thai promised not to partner with parties tainted by ties to the military.

This pledge looks difficult to keep if Pheu Thai wants to form government. Pheu Thai has been courting a string of parties with ties to the military, but that hold the key to unlocking senate support. The senate, while unelected, serves as a political gatekeeper and power broker.

The already complex situation facing Pheu Thai is magnified by signals that exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 coup, wants to return to Thailand. Many see Thaksin as Pheu Thai’s leader in absentia.

One pivotal question is whether the Pheu Thai might switch candidates from Sretta to Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin’s daughter. Another is will Pheu Thai be able to keep its promise not to join forces with parties like Palang Pracharath and United Thai Nation Party, linked to the nine-year rule of outgoing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha?

The formation of a coalition between the Pheu Thai and the parties in the previous junta-backed government might signal a bold attempt to put an end to the long-standing political polarisation between the Pheu Thai and its adversaries within the military and traditional establishment. It also is worth noting that the Pheu Thai has made significant pledges, including refraining from pursuing the amendment of the lèse-majesté law, a commitment to protect the monarchy, and a proposal to establish a committee for drafting a more democratic constitution through a referendum before dissolving the House for a new election.

But a deal with junta-linked parties is likely fuel the palpable frustration of many Thais. They feel that their votes are being disregarded, echoing an historical pattern. Consequently, Pheu Thai will face resentment from MFP voters, who feel betrayed, as well as from some of its own supporters who would view a decision to align with pro-junta parties as a departure from Pheu Thai’s role as a champion of electoral democracy. This could potentially result in the Pheu Thai losing ground to the resurgent MFP in the electoral domain.

Conversely, for a party like Pheu Thai that relies on fulfilling its campaign promises and memories of delivering economic prosperity, the inability to form a government after being out of office for more than nine years might be more damaging than being perceived as merely engaging in political maneuvering to win government.

Over the past two decades, Thailand has endured the upheaval of two coups that ousted elected leaders and three Thaksin-affiliated political parties were disbanded. It is now MFP, which emerged after the Constitutional Court disbanded its predecessor, the Future Forward Party, that finds itself at risk of dissolution for pushing progressive reforms. The stakes are high. Massive demonstrations are possible if MFP is disbanded and its executive members barred from politics.

Thailand’s quest for a new prime minister represents a critical juncture in the country’s journey towards a peaceful transfer of power. Its cohesion and talent for political compromise will be tested in these turbulent days.

Professor Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee is a member of the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.