There has been much speculation as to whether the Move Forward Party might be able to install its candidate as the prime minister of Thailand. But the country’s next leader might well emerge from the ranks of Pheu Thai, the opposition party which won the second-largest number of seats in the recent elections.
Fresh from its recent victory at the 14 May general elections, the Move Forward Party (MFP) is running into significant hurdles in its pursuit of the premiership. This stems from a trifecta of issues: the lack of support from the unelected Senate, uncertainties surrounding its prime ministerial candidate and internal strife within the proposed coalition. The irony is that Pheu Thai, the opposition party which won the second-largest number of seats, may instead be in a strategic position to install its candidate into the country’s top job.
At present, the MFP holds 151 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives, with a total of 312 seats in the eight-party coalition, ensuring a comfortable majority government. However, to secure the premiership for Pita Limjaroenrat, the proposed coalition — which will include MFP and Pheu Thai — needs at least 376 votes in the joint parliamentary session of 500 Members of Parliament (MPs) and 250 Senators.
Obtaining the support of the conservative Senate is a formidable challenge, largely due to the MFP’s commitment to amend Section 112 (the lese majeste law), which is perceived by some members of the Senate as a threat to the monarchy. Pita requires backing from at least 64 senators, but thus far, only at most 20 senators have shown a willingness to support him.
Furthermore, Pita’s eligibility for the premiership remains uncertain due to an ongoing allegation that he possessed shares in iTV, a dormant television company, since March 2007. The Election Commission is expected to decide in mid-July whether there is sufficient evidence to refer the case to the Constitutional Court. As the 2017 Constitution bars those who hold shares in media companies from serving as an MP, Pita could be disqualified.
Against this backdrop of uncertainty, Pheu Thai has insisted that its leader, Dr Chonlanan Srikaew, be given the House Speaker position. Dr Chonlanan is a 62-year-old medical doctor and six-time elected MP from the northern province of Nan. The demand is a thinly-veiled attempt by Pheu Thai to extract concessions from the MFP in exchange for supporting Pita’s quest for the premiership. Pheu Thai argues that the House Speaker, as the head of the legislative branch, must be fair and neutral. This is in response to the MFP’s claim that it needs the House Speaker post to advance its legislative agendas, including amending Section 112 and facilitating the drafting of a new constitution.
Pheu Thai’s gambit determines which of the two opposition parties will bag the country’s top post. Without the support of Pheu Thai’s 141 MPs, the proposed MFP-led coalition will fail to secure the premiership for Pita and form a viable government. However, unlike the MFP, which has rejected the possibility of working with parties previously aligned with the military, Pheu Thai has options, including forming a coalition with other parties such as Bhumjaithai (71 MPs), the Democrat Party (25 MPs), Chatthaipattana (10 MPs), or even Palang Pracharath (40 MPs).
It was never clear that Srettha would be Pheu Thai’s first choice. Paetongtarn, the legitimate political scion of the Shinawatra family was seen as the party’s choice candidate for the premiership. In addition, he has not held any political office. Despite these factors, however, circumstances seem to be favouring Srettha.
In the event that Pita’s premiership bid is unsuccessful or the proposed MFP-led coalition collapses, Pheu Thai may seize the opportunity to propose one of its three candidates for the premiership. These include Thaksin’s youngest daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin, or former attorney-general Chaikasem Nitisiri. Among these contenders, Srettha, a former CEO of Sansiri PLC, one of Thailand’s largest real estate developers, and a member of an elite family, stands out as a promising frontrunner due to his broad acceptability, potentially even by the Senate.
Although Srettha has long been associated with the Shinawatras, particularly former Prime Minister Yingluck, his foray into politics only began formally when he assumed the role of chief advisor to Paetongtarn. Upon announcing his candidacy for the premiership, Srettha became the face of the Pheu Thai Party’s economic policies, including the controversial 10,000 baht digital wallet policy.
Srettha’s unwavering commitment as the Pheu Thai candidate for prime minister is evident. He has transferred his shares in Sansiri to his daughter and resigned from all his positions at the company. Sansiri, which is listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand, has a market capitalisation of 27.4 billion baht (US$790 million)
While he has refrained from engaging in policy debates during the campaign, Srettha actively interacted with supporters on Twitter and attended rallies alongside former Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikua, especially at a time when Paetongtarn had to withdraw from campaigning due to her giving birth. Pheu Thai appeared to reciprocate by giving Srettha the green light to openly declare his readiness to become Thailand’s next prime minister at the party’s final rallies in Bangkok and Nonthaburi. The declaration reaffirmed his earlier stance that he would not settle for any other posts.
It was never clear that Srettha would be Pheu Thai’s first choice. Paetongtarn, the legitimate political scion of the Shinawatra family, was seen as the party’s choice candidate for the premiership. In addition, he has not held any political office. Despite these factors, however, circumstances seem to be favouring Srettha.
Specifically, Pheu Thai’s failure to win the election has made it more imperative for the party to make compromises in forming a governing coalition. Paetongtarn may not be acceptable to the Senate or potential coalition partners with a conservative support base due to her blood tie to Thaksin. Srettha’s status as an outsider is counted as a weakness. It appears that he does not enjoy the full support of the party or the trust of Thaksin. Ironically, such a “weakness” may now serve as a bridge between the stakeholders of the Pheu Thai-led coalition and the conservative establishment.
In conclusion, the ongoing struggle to establish a functional government in Thailand has created a unique opportunity for Pheu Thai at the expense of the MFP. Although Srettha’s quest for the premiership is still in its early stages, his credentials and economic expertise, as well as his capacity to act as a mediator between Thaksin and those who now consider Pheu Thai the lesser of two evils, provide a solid foundation for his potential rise to the position of prime minister.
Ultimately, however, his chance of success will still be determined by whether the Senate, or whomever it represents, prefers a leader like Srettha or another conservative stopgap to overrule the mandate of Thai voters who voted overwhelmingly in favour of change.
Napon Jatusripitak is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He is a PhD Researcher at Northwestern University.
Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow and Acting Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.