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Thailand: Who will form the next government?

Tommy Walker in Bangkok
July 17, 2023

Move Forward Party's leader Pita Limjaroenrat's hopes of becoming Thailand's new prime minister were dashed last week as he failed to garner enough votes from the Senate. What happens next?

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the Pheu Thai Party leader, during the pre-election campaign
Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, has emerged as a frontrunner Image: Peerapon Boonyakiat/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party (MFP), which won the elections, failed in his initial bid to become Thailand's next prime minister on July 13.

Despite being unopposed, he did not secure the required endorsement of more than half of the bicameral parliament, with many lawmakers abstaining or voting against him.

The Thai parliament is expected to hold another vote on July 19, which Pita can contest if nominated again.

"I am not giving up," Pita told reporters, adding that he accepted the result of the first round of voting.

Experts, however, think his chances of becoming Thailand's next prime minister are more or less over and his party could even be squeezed out of having any government representation at all.

"The first vote was a clear indication that not enough senators will vote for him. In the second vote, it's unlikely that he will gather the required support," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in the Thai capital Bangkok, told DW.

Pheu Thai Party in the driver's seat

After winning 151 seats in the general elections in May, the MFP formed an eight-party coalition with the pre-election favorite, the Pheu Thai Party. This took the alliance's number of seats in the Southeast Asian country's lower house to 312. The coalition signed a joint memorandum of understanding outlining nearly two dozen steps to reshape Thailand's political future.

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One of the biggest sticking points for Pita and the MFP has been to get support from MPs and senators to back their agenda to reform Thailand's lese-majeste law —Article 112 of Thailand's penal code carries heavy punishment for criticism of the monarchy. Its reform was one of the MFP's major campaign pledges.

With outgoing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha retiring from politics and Pita having seemingly failed in his bid for the premiership, the Pheu Thai Party could be given a chance to nominate their own prime ministerial candidate in parliament.

"[Pita] has even insinuated that he and the Move Forward Party would be willing to make way for the Pheu Thai Party should they fail to win the vote," Thitinan said.

New premiership candidates

Paetongtarn Shinawatra and Srettha Thavisin are two of the potential Pheu Thai candidates for the premiership.

Paetongtarn is the daughter of exiled former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who founded Pheu Thai in 2007. She is all too aware that political parties in Thailand do not necessarily end up forming a government, even if they secure the most seats in an election.

Pheu Thai won the most seats in the 2019 general elections but was unable to form a government because the Senate backed Prayut, a former military general who in 2014 had led a military coup, as prime minister.

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But today Pheu Thai is seen to be as a more appealing option than the Move Forward Party to conservatives and military loyalists in parliament.

Former real-estate mogul Srettha Thavisin, 60, has also emerged as a possible nomination for prime minister.

"The question is whether Srettha's name will come up? Whether the Senate will vote for him? I think that if the MFP remains in the coalition, there's a good chance that the Senate will not vote for him," predicted Thitinan.

There has long been talk about the how Pheu Thai could form its own alliance should the MFP fail in its bid to lead the government.

What next? 

"Pheu Thai will most likely [get] first try to stick with the coalition and ask other coalition partners to support its prime minister candidate since crossing to the other pro-junta political camp would be seen as betraying their pro-democracy voters and they could face a punitive punishment by the voters in the next general election," Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist, told DW.

As for the Move Forward Party, it could lose its grip on running the government altogether. Pita's attempts to become the next prime minister have also been marred by legal issues.

On the eve of the vote last week, Thailand's election commission announced that it had recommended Pita should be suspended, claiming he was not qualified to be a lawmaker because his ownership of shares in a media company violated electoral rules. The country's Constitutional Court now has the final say in the case that could see Pita barred from politics and even facing prison time.

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The court also confirmed it was reviewing a complaint that the MFP's pledge to amend Thailand's anti-monarchy law amounts to "overthrowing the democratic regime with the King as head of state."

Possible protests

The pressure on Pita and his party has angered his supporters and other Thai activists. Small street demonstrations erupted last week, but it is unclear whether there will be a resurgence of protests comparable to those in 2020 and 2021 when thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Bangkok, calling for reform of the monarchy and government.

Dr. Siripan Nogsuan, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, was skeptical: "Protests [are] inevitable. [But] I don't foresee a huge participation because it's not a surprise that Pita failed to get enough support from the senators."

Pravit disagreed: "[We] cannot rule out major protests, particularly if Pita is banned from politics and the Move Forward Party is disbanded by the Constitutional Court. The military could step in and attempt to stage a coup."

Edited by: Shamil Shams

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