In choosing to align itself with military-backed parties, the Pheu Thai Party has betrayed the faith of voters who believed that democratic principles would best ensure Thailand’s future.
After more than two months of “political chaos” following Thailand’s 14 May elections, the country finally has a new premier. Thanks to his success in securing support from a majority of the Senate and Lower House of parliament on 22 July, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin of the Pheu Thai Party will lead an 11-party coalition government. Prominent among his party’s partners are the Bhumjaithai Party, a heavyweight component of the outgoing government of General Prayut Chan-ocha, and Phalang Pracharat and United Thai Nation, both associated with the junta that Prayut led in toppling a Pheu Thai-led administration in 2014.
There are many ways to understand what has happened in Thailand in recent weeks. These events began with the Pheu Thai Party’s abandonment of the proposed coalition forged by Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat after he failed to win enough support from military-appointed senators to secure the premiership. They were followed by Srettha’s selection as premier at the head of a very different coalition and the return from exile of the fugitive from justice former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on the day of that selection.
Perhaps the most straightforward way to understand where Thailand now finds itself is through an examination of the party that now leads its government.
Pheu Thai’s decision to forge a coalition without the support of Move Forward, which bested it by a slender margin of 151 to 141 Lower House seats in May’s polls, has seen Srettha break his campaign promise not to work with the military-backed Phalang Pracharat and United Thai Nation Parties. This decision was almost certainly crucial to Srettha’s gaining enough support from senators to win Thailand’s premiership. It has led observers to wonder how the party will recover from the resultant damage to its reputation as a force for democracy.
But a focus on Pheu Thai’s abandonment of the country’s pro-democracy camp reflects a misunderstanding of the party and its Thaksinite predecessor parties Thai Rak Thai and People’s Power. One must be clear here: to fall victim to coups d’état, as did governments led by Thai Rak Thai in 2006 and Pheu Thai in 2014, or to ouster by judicial fiat, as did People’s Power in 2008, does not in itself make a party a force for democracy and principled government. It may just mean that that party enjoys less access to instruments of violence or sympathy from the courts than its enemies.
To fall victim to coups d’état, as did governments led by Thai Rak Thai in 2006 and Pheu Thai in 2014, or to ouster by judicial fiat, as did People’s Power in 2008, does not in itself make a party a force for democracy and principled government.
After all, Thaksin’s 2001-2006 government was hardly afraid to use violence. It presided over both a savage three-month war on drugs in 2003 and the mass suffocation of detained Malay-Muslim protestors in the infamous 2004 Tak Bai incident. It also benefitted from judicial sympathy when, just six months into Thaksin’s premiership, the Constitutional Court acquitted him on corruption charges in a decision widely viewed as reflecting political rather than legal considerations. Despite all this and Thaksin’s strongman tendencies, Thaksinite parties outperformed their rivals in Thailand’s general elections of 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2019. Perhaps just as important as any sense of the parties’ commitment to democracy, voter identification of Thai Rak Thai, People’s Power and Pheu Thai with measures that improved their economic lot were central to those victories.
In opposing the military dictatorships that ousted it, Pheu Thai, like its Thaksinite predecessor parties, assumed a pro-democracy stance, even if that was by default. And, for many of its followers and some of its leaders, that was not a default stance. Today, however, the party’s dominant leadership is gambling that addressing pocketbook issues matters more to those supporters than a commitment to democratic principles.
The party has come to power with a platform centred on a promise to fill every Thai adult’s “digital wallet” with ten thousand baht (US$283). It has placed not only in the premiership but also, apparently, in the post of finance minister, an ultra-rich man and political novice with a background in real estate development rather than economic policy-making. But these choices do not bespeak a formula for addressing the deep structural flaws of the Thai economy — an ageing society, precarity and a need for labour-market reform, slow growth, crushing household debt, a flagging education system, underinvestment in research and overdependence on tourism. Instead, they are rooted in the same drive to power that motivated Thai Rak Thai and People’s Power in the past — along, it seems with a rumoured “deal” to see the party’s godfather Thaksin soon pardoned for the crimes he was convicted of. And time will tell whether these choices will split the party’s leadership and drive away supporters who trusted its commitment to democratic principles.
In May’s elections, Thai voters cast ballots both for constituency candidates, in what were often contests over local popularity and influence, and for party lists, in a reflection of support for parties’ principles and programmes. In the party-list polling, Move Forward outscored Pheu Thai by three and a half million votes. This result underlined faith among voters that liberal politics and the deconcentration of economic power would serve both Thai democracy and Thais’ economic well-being better than the pursuit of power for power’s sake and populist gimmickry. In taking the reins of government as it has done, Pheu Thai has betrayed that faith.
Michael Montesano is Associate Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Coordinator of the Thailand and Myanmar Studies Programme at the institute.