Thailand election: Will military elite let opposition take power?

Move Forward Party wins election, but a military-appointed Senate and the ambitions of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra may yet thwart its bid to govern.

Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat leads a victory parade with fellow party members and supporters in Bangkok, Thailand.
Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat leads a victory parade with fellow party members and supporters in Bangkok, Thailand [Lillian Suwanrumpha/ AFP]

Bangkok, Thailand – The crowd of thousands in central Bangkok erupted into deafening cheers at the arrival of Pita Limjaroenrat, the opposition politician who led his party to a stunning victory over the military-backed groups that have dominated Thai politics for nearly a decade.

Smiling and waving from the back of a pick-up truck, the charismatic 42-year-old businessman led a short victory rally on Monday, from Bangkok’s Democracy Monument to a plaza in front of the capital’s Metropolitan Administration Office, where he declared a “new day, bright with hope” for Thailand.

“Anything is possible in our country when we all work together,” he told a sea of supporters clad in his Move Forward Party’s signature orange.

“The next prime minister of Thailand will be named Pita Limjaroenrat and soon, we will change this country together.”

Hours before, the Elections Commission had declared Move Forward the biggest winner in the general election held on Sunday. The progressive party, contesting elections for the first time, took 151 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives after campaigning on a bold platform of reforms to the monarchy and the military.

The populist opposition Pheu Thai came in second with 141 seats. The two parties have now agreed to begin coalition talks. But even with their stunning majority, it remains unclear if the royalist-military elite — who have staged two coups amid waves of protests in the past 20 years — will hand over power easily.

Several roadblocks lie in Move Forward’s path to Bangkok’s Government House.

Chief among them are parliamentary rules that allow a military-appointed Senate an outsized role in choosing the next prime minister. But the ambitions of Move Forward’s potential coalition partner, Pheu Thai, may also yet prove to be an obstacle.

‘Hard times’

Analysts foresee a long and drawn-out process that could end in deadlock and say they fear this may trigger new instability in a country — potentially paving the way for the military to step in again.

“If Move Forward cannot form a government, we have to worry about party dissolution and even a military coup,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, associate professor of social sciences and humanities at the Mahidol University in Bangkok. “Thailand faces hard times ahead. My hope is that the process of government formation will go smoothly and that there is no more conflict. Everyone is sort of sick of it, this cycle of protests, coups and protests.”

There is reason for concern.

Already, several senators have said they would not support a Move Forward-led coalition. Appointed during military rule, the 250-member upper chamber is allowed to vote on the prime minister, and any candidate for the top job must secure 376 votes across the combined chambers. If they wish to overrule the Senate, that number must come from the lower chamber alone.

At present, however, Move Forward looks set to win 310 votes at the most.

The biggest issue for the Senate is the party’s pledge to reform laws related to the monarchy — an institution revered in Thailand’s constitution. The plans include amending Thailand’s strict lese-majeste law, known as Article 112, which punishes insults to the monarchy with up to 15 years in jail. Move Forward has accused the current ruling coalition of using the law to stifle dissent, noting that at least 242 members of a huge youth-led protest movement that backed the party in Sunday’s elections are currently facing charges.

The youngest of them is only 15 years old.

“Move Forward and Mr Pita once announced they will scrap Article 112, which will affect the monarchy. This is unacceptable.” said Senator Jadet Insawang in an interview with the Bangkok Post. “If Mr Pita is nominated [for prime minister], I will reject it because I will observe the constitution and keep my oath,” he added.

Two months remain for Move Forward to secure the support it needs.

The vote for the prime minister is expected in late July or early August, shortly after the Elections Commission officially verifies the vote results.

“If they don’t make it to 376, we will end up in a deadlock situation,” said Napon Jatsuripitak, a visiting fellow with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “In two months time, when the voting for the speaker of the house and the prime minister take place, we could potentially see several rounds of voting where no one side gets to 376. And according to the Constitution, there’s no time limit [on the process].”

Pheu Thai’s ‘other options’

In the event of a deadlock, Pheu Thai may take the lead in trying to form a government — without Move Forward.

During the election campaign, the populist party, which along with its predecessors has won every election since 2001, said it would not touch Article 112. Many saw the stance as an attempt to reconcile with the royalist-military establishment after nearly two decades of being thwarted in its bid to govern the Southeast Asian country.

The party’s founder, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled in 2006 in a military coup widely seen as backed by the palace, while the government of his sister, Yingluck, was also brought down by the army in 2014. Both of them now live in exile after being sentenced to prison over charges they claim are politically motivated.

Pre-election polling had put Pheu Thai ahead of Move Forward, but observers say the former’s stance on Article 112 as well as delays on its part in dismissing speculation of an alliance with royalist-military parties cost it support. Move Forward ended up winning seats in several areas long considered Pheu Thai strongholds, including all but one of Bangkok’s 33 seats and seven out of the 10 seats in the northern Chiang Mai province.

“Pheu Thai is not like the Move Forward Party. It has other options. And one of those options would be to form a coalition with other parties, including the Palang Pacharat,” led by former General Prawit Wongsuwan, said Napon. The Palang Pracharat Party won 40 seats in Sunday’s election, and their other partners could include the Bhumjaithai Party which won 71 seats, and Chart Thai Pattana Party which won 10 seats.

“All these parties would not come up to 376 anyways. But they might be able to get the Senate’s support, because General Prawit would likely be able to sway a number of senators because he played a role in appointing them in the first place,” he said.

Such a move on Pheu Thai’s part would be risky for the party, as many of its supporters detest Prawit and the military. And after Sunday’s vote, Pheu Thai — currently led by Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra — said it was accepted Move Forward’s invitation to “create a democratic alliance”. It added that it had “no plan to compete with Move Forward to form a new government”.

Thaksin’s return

Still, some observers were sceptical, especially as Thaksin has expressed a desire to return to Thailand in July.

Shortly before the election, the 73-year-old, who has spent 17 years in exile, appeared to ask King Maha Vajiralongkorn for permission to come back in a tweet, saying he was getting old and wanted to spend time with his family.

“A lot depends on Thaksin’s determination to return to the country,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, professor of political science at the Ubon Ratchathani University in eastern Thailand. “If so, Pheu Thai and Thaksin would want to have control of the government. But if they join a Move Forward-led coalition, they are actually losing negotiating power. And they can only regain that by collaborating with the existing military-led parties like Palang Pracharat.”

While Titipol said he did not feel “too optimistic” about the government formation process, he was still heartened by the vast support for Move Forward.

In addition to winning the most directly-elected seats, the party also won the popular vote. About 14.3 million people of the 39 million that turned out for Sunday’s election voted for the Move Forward in the nationwide ballot for party-list seats.

Pheu Thai, meanwhile, won 10.9 million votes.

Move Forward even took the popular vote in areas where its candidates for local constituencies lost out to military-aligned parties. For instance, in northeastern Buri Ram province, where Bhumjaithai won all 10 directly-elected seats, it was Move Forward that won the popular vote. It had 238,341 votes compared with Bhumjaithai’s 168,209, according to The Nation newspaper.

“This is a big turning point for Thailand,” said Titipol, warning any attempt by Pheu Thai or the Senate to thwart an MFP-led government carried risks.

Pheu Thai would endanger its “entire future in politics”, while any move by the Senate to challenge the electorate’s will would trigger mass protests, particularly by young people, he said.

“It’s also not easy for the military to stage a coup this time, because they can see that the energy and the power of the supporters of Move Forward is rather different,” he said.

Move Forward, too, appears confident that it can convert its groundbreaking win into power.

When asked whether the MFP was concerned about action against himself or the party, Pita told reporters on Monday that he was “not worried”.

“But I’m not careless,” he said. “With the consensus that came out of the election, there would be quite a hefty price to pay for someone who is thinking of abolishing the election result, or forming a minority government,” he warned.

“And I think the people of Thailand would not allow that to happen.”

Source: Al Jazeera