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Thailand: Anti-junta parties seek to rule but hurdles remain

Tommy Walker in Bangkok
May 24, 2023

Opposition parties have scored a massive victory in the recent election in Thailand, but even that may not be enough for a new government.

Pita Limjaroenrat put his palms together in greeting after voting in Thailand
The 42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat hopes to becomes Thailand's next prime ministerImage: JACK TAYLOR/AFP/Getty Images

The liberal Move Forward Party (MFP) is leading the way towards forming the next ruling coalition in Thailand after emerging as the winner of this month's general election.

The MFP has now signed a joint memorandum of understanding (MOU) with seven other parties in the Thai parliament. Together, they have formulated 23 points for reshaping the country's future.

But the coalition still does not have the necessary majority in the National Assembly and experts warn there is no guarantee that it will actually end up in power.

Nonetheless MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat appeared confident at the signing ceremony in the capital Bangkok this week.

"Today is about setting it up, as a good starter, that we have to work together moving forward to declare our policies after I become prime minister," he told reporters.

Senate appointed by military

Thailand's parliament has a total of 750 members, including 250 senators appointed by the country's military. The MFP is projected to control 152 seats on its own. The eight-party coalition it is part of jointly controls 313 seats — but still falls short of the 376 needed for a majority.

Adding to the instability is the fact that the country's electoral commission has yet to confirm the election results. The deadline for this confirmation expires on June 13.

After the results are official, the 250-seat Senate will announce who their favorite candidate is to lead the next government.

It could be hard for the coalition will be to remain united, said Susannah Patton, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. "The big challenge now is due to the amount of time until the parliament sits — the timeline for the results to be endorsed from the election is really lengthy and I think that makes it a little unpredictable about what will happen in the next couple of months," she told DW.

"The danger for Move Forward is that in the meantime things get messy politically and that makes them look like they are poorly organized or disrespectful or that they can't keep their coalition together," she said.

Monarchy still out of bounds

The joint memorandum of understanding includes restoring democracy, drafting a new constitution, passing a marriage equality act, reforming the police, the military, the judiciary, reviving the economy and ending military conscription.

Notably, however, it does not include amending Thailand's lese-majeste law that  harshly punishes those who criticize Thailand's monarchy. Changing it was a major MFP pledge in its election campaign, and a big reason why Thailand's youth supported the opposition party.

Patton said the memorandum was not necessarily "a binding document" for any of the parties in the coalition.

"The lese-majeste law is a key sticking point for many establishment figures in terms of their willingness to work with Move Forward," she added. "It may be that the price of securing support from the Senate is for Move Forward to tacitly agree that it won't take that policy up in the next parliament, but they have reiterated that it is very important to their platform, so it's not all clear they would be willing to make that compromise."

And while more than one of the coalition parties have already said they will not support changing the lese-majeste law, MFP leader Limjaroenrat insists his party will submit new legislation when the time comes.

Pheu Thai waiting for its chance?

The MFP's biggest ally is the Pheu Thai party, which won 141 seats. It was seen as the favorite before the election and considered more appealing to conservatives and to military loyalists in the Senate.

This has fueled speculation that Pheu Thai could look to form its own coalition. The party leaders have rejected these claims, but Patton said it could still happen if the MFP failed to secure enough support.

"The problem with that for Pheu Thai is that it would make them very unpopular with their support base. For Pheu Thai to align with military parties, they probably want to be in a position to say they only did that because there was no alternative," she said.

Pheu Thai won the most seats in 2019 general elections, yet it was unable to form a government. Instead, the parliament kept Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who had led a military coup and ousted an elected government five years earlier, in power.

New issues for new times

The election results signal a change of times in Thailand, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University.

"Move Forward have become very popular, which has proved now that Thai politics is moving towards the ideology in England, and in the US," he told DW.

During the campaign, the parties focused less on populist policies and more on issues such as personal freedom and LGBTQ rights. "In this election it has become more the center of the discussion as well, so we can have a hope for progress for the young generation," Titipol said.

He said that the MFP would have to focus on gaining more public support while at the same time trying to work behind the scenes with those defending the country's business interests.

PM candidate at risk

Observers said that the risk remained that Thailand's pro-junta parties could stay in power once again. With opposition parties trying to close ranks, there is growing speculation that the MFP's leader could be disqualified from office.

Thailand's constitution prohibits a media shareholder from standing in a general election, and Limjareonrat has been accused of owning shares in a de-listed television broadcaster.

"The worst-case scenario could be a coup, but I don't think it's very likely at this stage," Titipol said. Instead, he said, the coalition would most likely "be allowed to govern for a few months" before the case on Limjareonrat's alleged media involvement was used against him.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic


Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco