By Thompson Chau
BANGKOK, May 31 2023 (IPS)
Thailand is heading to the edge of the precipice as conservative and military forces could possibly refuse to recognise the will of the people, as expressed in one of the country’s biggest election upsets.
Move Forward, a progressive reformist party mostly supported by younger Thais, and opposition heavyweight Pheu Thai, associated with exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his family, dominated the May 14 ballot in a heavy blow to army-backed rivals that have controlled the government for nearly a decade.
But the Thai establishment, which has levers over electoral, legislative and judicial bodies, may move to block the winning parties from forming a government, leading to fears of a political showdown and massive protests. Thailand has had periodic outbreaks of protests and brutal military crackdowns, but the backlash this time “will probably make the resistance to the 2019 and earlier elections look like child’s play”, veteran diplomat Laetitia van den Assum warned.
In a surprise upset, Move Forward won 152 of the 500 seats in the lower house, while Pheu Thai won 141. Prayuth and his allies suffered a humiliating defeat: Prayuth’s new United Thai Nation won just 36, and Palang Pracharat – led by former general Prawit Wongsuwan – bagged 40 seats.
However, the military junta-appointed senate, totalling 250, might prevent the elected lawmakers from forming a government. The pro-establishment parties can likely count on the support of the senators, according to thinktank CSIS.
In 2019, for example, the unelected Senate voted for coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister even though his Palang Pracharath Party only won 116 seats compared to Pheu Thai’s 136.
In addition, the military-controlled authorities have a record of disqualifying MPs and dissolving their parties, including dissolving Move Forward’s predecessor Future Forward and barring party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit from taking his seat in 2019.
On May 30, eight political parties led by Move Forward started coalition talks and the establishment of a “transition team” in a bid to form the new administration.
Prayuth, now a caretaker PM, has branded the transition team’s call on the bureaucracy to cooperate “inappropriate”.
“I’m not starting any conflict with anyone. As I have told you, I adhere to democratic rules,” the outgoing leader told journalists in Bangkok.
Thailand has been ruled by its military leaders since 2014, when Prayuth Chan-ocha, then-army chief, overthrew Yingluck Shinawatra’s government in a coup. But analysts and diplomats warn that this time the risk of a massive repercussions is high.
“Pita Limjaroenrat was fast on his feet to give a rough outline of his foreign policy plans almost immediately after the results were announced, followed by the news of his plan for a coalition. This put the military and other parties on the back foot. As Pita has consolidated his popularity, they have to respond to Pita’s announcements,” Laetitia van den Assum told IPS. She was previously the Dutch ambassador to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
“Thailand’s ruling establishment will have a lot to worry about if it seriously undermines the outcome of the elections,” van den Assum said.
Thailand should already have a new administration in office by now with Pita as prime minister, said prominent Thai academic Thitinan Pongsudhirak, referring to how Move Forward and Pheu Thai collectively secured more than 58 percent of the elected seats and therefore enjoy a clear mandate.
“However, their government-in-waiting, with eight parties and 313 elected representatives, is facing multiple roadblocks, including the military-appointed senate and Election Commission,” commented Pongsudhirak, a professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
In a clear sign some senators may not vote for Pita, influential senator Wanchai Sornsiri said he and others would have to take other factors into consideration, such as the party’s policies, according to Thai news site Khaosod English. There were also petitions to go after Pita from his opponents, which the Election Commission is investigating.
The electoral body has until mid-July to certify the results.
“There needs to be public pressure to be piled on these powerful but biased bodies that were appointed during the coup-dominated years. Pita is being targeted because he and his party represent an existential threat to the traditional centres of power,” Pongsudhirak said.
Young voter Sukontip Pinso, a Move Forward supporter, said she felt pleasantly surprised by the election upset.
“The result means that Thai people really want big changes in Thailand, including how political power is structured. Move forward also got a lot of votes in the south, which was crazy because people there still worship the monarchy,” she told IPS.
Sukontip, a 24-year-old working in the trade industry from Phuket, said she’s anxious about a coup and about the risk of Pheu Thai betraying the people. Pheu Thai has made multiple statements saying they would not seek to compete against Move Forward in forming a government.
“In previous coups, the Thai military made plans ahead and made a large number of people believe that it was acceptable for the military to seize power. But this time, it’s different,” Sukontip said. “If the pro-military establishment knocks Pita out of the government, we expect that will trigger the biggest protests in Thailand. The backlash will dwarf previous rallies.”
A coalition has emerged between Move Forward, Pheu Thai, and a number of other smaller parties.
However, it isn’t yet clear how this coalition will earn the votes needed to appoint Pita Limjaroenrat as prime minister if appointed senators refuse to vote for him, said Ken Mathis Lohatepanont, a Thai PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science, University of Michigan.
“What comes next is still murky,” Lohatepanont told IPS.
He also warned that backlash against Pita being disqualified or the Senate preventing a Move Forward coalition from taking power will “likely be high”, pointing to Move Forward’s broad and enthusiastic base of support across the country.
For now, Pita remains confident about getting appointed as prime minister amid worries that the conservative forces will intervene.
The unity of the senators is not the same as it was four years ago when they unanimously voted to elect Prayut as prime minister, the Move Forward leader said. They must also take into account the “significant shift in public opinion” that has developed since 2019, he added.
The outcome of this impending crisis will have a significant bearing beyond Thailand. Both China and the United States see Thailand as strategically important as a potential bulwark against each other’s efforts to sway Southeast Asia, a battleground between the two big powers.
“A top priority for the next Thai foreign minister will be to reinvigorate Thailand’s diplomacy, which historically has been very influential in Southeast Asia but which lately has been less active and influential,” retired State Department official Scot Marciel told IPS.
“The new Thai government will hopefully effectively facilitate humanitarian aid into Myanmar and withdraw its support for the Burmese military. In dealing with China and other big powers, Thailand can help ASEAN by resuming its traditional role of bolstering ASEAN’s standing,” Marciel, who was the US ambassador to ASEAN, Indonesia and Myanmar, said.
“I would expect the U.S. is hoping the coalition-building process will be allowed to proceed without interference and will respect the views of the voters,” he added.
IPS UN Bureau Report