The recent gains made by the Move Forward party have compelled Pheu Thai, the country’s biggest opposition party, to consider possibilities previously deemed unpalatable.
Less than two weeks until election day in Thailand on 14 May, the Move Forward Party (MFP), the kingdom’s second-largest opposition party, is gaining ground. It is doing so at the expense of Pheu Thai (PT), the largest opposition party.
The MFP is now so confident of joining a new government that it has laid down a roadmap of “things to do” for different time markers during its time in government: for the first 100 days, one year, and four years.
Move Forward gained credibility with a stellar performance after the 2019 general election. Now, its rejection of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, leader of Palang Pracharath (PPRP), the largest government party, has won the support of undecided urban voters.
Holding strong views about reforming the military and the monarchy, Future Forward, the predecessor of the MFP, was dissolved in February 2020 for violating the political party law. This led to widespread youth protests across the country. As Thitinan Pongsudhirak notes, MFP has a more progressive agenda than Pheu Thai. Both are calling for constitutional revision and military reforms, but the former goes further than the latter and is calling for direct elections of provincial governors and land reform.
The MFP appears to be gaining traction among younger voters. It has a firm support base among voters aged 18-25 (Generation Z, numbering 6.8 million voters) and 26-41 (Generation Y, 15.3 million). A large number of older Generation X voters, estimated at 16.3 million, are upset with the political status and want a change of government.
The MFP’s traction has thrown up a nightmare scenario for Pheu Thai. The two opposition parties are relying on the same reservoir of anti-government voters. Theoretically at least, a PT-MFP pairing should enable the two parties to amass at least 376 seats in the Lower House.
The kingdom’s next prime minister will be selected in a joint parliamentary session of 500 Members of Parliament in the Lower House and 250 unelected Senators in the Upper House. Given that the senators are seen to be aligned to the country’s conservative establishment, opposition parties such as PT and MFP will need the support of at least 376 seats to bag the premiership and take government.
An alternative for PT would be to suffer the insufferable: forming a coalition with the country’s conservative parties such as PP and United Thai Nation (UTN).
All recent polls concurred that PT would fall short of winning the 251 seats required to form a single-party government. The NIDA Poll released on 16 April, for example, indicated that PT could win 189 constituency seats and 47 party-list seats. This will see PT with 236 MPs — way below the 376-seat threshold.
Given that Move Forward’s growing popularity has dragged down PT’s ratings in the polls, Pheu Thai has decided to take the proverbial gloves off. It has focused the spotlight on the MFP leadership’s dearth of experience.
PT is urging undecided voters to go for a “strategic” decision: vote for PT in all 400 constituencies and help the party secure a ‘landslide’ victory. As recent polls indicate, however, this looks increasingly unlikely.
But bagging a landslide is not PT’s only challenge. Even in the unlikely event that it bags such a historic win, it would need to take the office of the prime minister.
It ain’t over till the fat lady sings. As it stands, however, PT’s reported openness to ditch Move Forward and embrace the auld enemy in the form of General Prawit’s PPRP underscores its growing desperation.
Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister in exile, has voiced support for his youngest daughter Paetongtarn. In recent opinion polls, Paetongtarn, 36, was the most popular candidate for the premiership. The second most popular candidate was MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat. Pita’s supporters argue that voting for PT would divide opposition voters, thus gifting PPRP leader General Prawit the premiership.
General Prawit would only say the outcome of the general election will determine how a new government will be formed, and who will be the next prime minister. This would be “based on negotiations and circumstances at hand”. What is certain is that a break in the opposition ranks would raise the possibility of either General Prawit or General Prayut Chan-o-cha (the current prime minister and UTN candidate) bagging the country’s top job.
PT’s political fortunes have not been helped by rumours purportedly fanned by Move Forward supporters. According to the rumours, PT might effect a “secret deal” between Thaksin and General Prawit. Together, PT and PPRP would support General Prawit as the prime minister in a coalition of national reconciliation. In exchange, Thaksin would return to Thailand to face three criminal convictions. A potential 10-year jail term would be replaced with house arrest pending his appeals in court.
The rumours cannot be verified, but two recent “secret polls” could underscore PT’s rationale in crossing the aisle to work on a Faustian bargain with government parties.
Although all government parties fared poorly in recent polls conducted by NIDA and The Nation, they came out quite favourably in the two polls carried out by the security agency and the Special Branch. The polls predicted that the five major parties in the government camp — Bhumjaithai, PP, United Thai Nation, Democrat, and Chartthaipattana — could win more than 250 House seats.
Most public opinion surveys capture chiefly public sentiments and name recognition of urban respondents who are accessible via mobile phone. But public sentiments do not win elections. The “secret polls”, like field surveys undertaken by every major party, focused on assessing individual candidates’ capabilities and their chances of winning in their constituencies.
If it fails to score the ‘landslide’ victory, PT will face the ignominy of spending another four years on the opposition benches. As per 2019, it might win the most number of House seats but fail to secure control of government.
It ain’t over till the fat lady sings. As it stands, however, PT’s reported openness to ditch Move Forward and embrace the auld enemy in the form of General Prawit’s PP underscores its growing desperation.
Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow and Acting Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.