Move Forward Party leader and candidate Pita Limjaroenrat arrives at a rally in Bangkok on April 22, 2023. (photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP)

Move Forward Party leader and candidate Pita Limjaroenrat arrives at a rally in Bangkok on April 22, 2023. (photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP)

Thailand’s Pheu Thai is Painting Itself Into a Corner

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Even if Thailand’s leading opposition party sweeps the popular vote on 14 May 2023, its latest demands to prospective coalition partners mean that it may not be able to form a coalition strong enough to win the premiership.

Thailand’s chief opposition Pheu Thai (PT) Party has literally painted itself into a corner. It has set tough preconditions for other parties to swallow if they want to join a PT-led government coalition after the general election (GE) on 14 May 2023. 

PT’s posturing is intended to show confidence and to attract the support of undecided voters, especially those from 16 million “Generation X” (42-57 year old) Thais, who are perceived as cautious middle-aged citizens who are more interested in policy details than their younger countrymen. 

One adverse scenario for PT is a potential deadlock, where a PT-led coalition is too small to secure the next premiership. To win, a premiership candidate needs to get at least 376 votes in a joint parliamentary session of 500 MPs and 250 senators. This is difficult for PT, given the pro-establishment senator bloc.

Under the guise of “national reconciliation”, PT can conceivably lead in forming an extra-large coalition that includes the second largest opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) and three or four government parties. Such a coalition may secure more than 376 votes to win the premiership without senators’ votes. 

But PT’s latest announcement has possibly excluded this option. On 8 May, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, one of PT’s three premiership candidates, announced in a TikTok live broadcast that parties wanting to join a PT-led coalition must accept its key conditions that the premiership be held by a PT candidate and that all key ministries be headed by PT’s chosen ministers.

Srettha Thavisin, the real estate tycoon who is another PT premiership candidate, added that PT would not work with the “Two Uncles”: PM Prayut Chan-ocha, the United Thai Nation’s candidate, and General Prawit Wongsuwan, leader and PM candidate of Palang Pracharath (PPRP), the largest government party.  

Bhumjaithai (BJT), the second largest government party, may be excluded from such a PT-led coalition because of its continuing defence of the legalisation of cannabis. PT and MFP have vowed to return marijuana and hemp to the list of banned narcotic substances.

In recent weeks, BJT’s senior members have bitterly quarrelled with PT’s Srettha, accusing him of spreading falsehoods about BJT’s marijuana campaign. Some have even filed police complaints of libel against Srettha for telling a PT campaign rally that voting for BJT would keep General Prayut in power. If found guilty in court, Srettha faces a jail term and disqualification from public office. Some senior BJT members have said that Srettha is merely a “stand-in actor”, insinuating that Paetongtarn is the PT’s actual PM candidate.

Meanwhile, the PT has not clarified who is its preferred candidate. Their latest concern might be that Paetongtarn and Srettha were overtaken by MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat in a 5 May 2023 poll.

The countrywide survey by Nation media involved nearly 115,000 respondents. Pita received 29.4 per cent of their support, compared with Paetongtarn’s 27.57 per cent. These results echoed a smaller poll of 2,500 which also showed Pita ahead of Paetongtarn, whose dip in popularity could reflect her recent absence from campaigning (she gave birth to her second child on May Day).  

In third place, Srettha received 13.26 per cent of support, still higher than General Prayut’s poor showing of only 8.85 per cent. In distant eighth place was General Prawit, with 2.37 per cent.

Buoyed by these results, Pita is now talking about leading a new government instead of joining a PT-led coalition, to bring about “real change” to Thailand.

Unfortunately, Pita has run into a new problem: a complaint has been lodged at the Election Commission, accusing him of hiding his holding of 42,000 shares in iTV, a defunct television station.     

In Thailand, MPs and holders of public office are barred from holding shares in any media business. If found guilty, Pita could be disqualified from being an MP and pushed out of the premiership race. A similar misstep had disqualified his predecessor, Thanathorn Jungroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party.   

Apparently alarmed by the growing popularity of Pita and the MFP, Paetongtarn’s father Thaksin Shinawatra sensationally announced on Twitter on 9 May his “decision” to return to Thailand before his 74th birthday on 26 July, after nearly 17 years in overseas exile. 

Thaksin stated that he would be ready to face the legal consequences, which include a possible jail term of 10 years from three convictions in conflict of interest cases from the mid-2000s.  

Whether Thaksin’s return, if it happens, will help or hurt the PT and Paetongtarn is uncertain. What is certain is that those who are afraid of a Thaksin comeback – including many senators – would not passively watch on the sidelines. Few of the 250 senators would vote for Thaksin’s daughter to be PM.

Whether Thaksin’s return, if it happens, will help or hurt the PT and Paetongtarn is uncertain.

Post-election, without a clear-cut winner for the premiership, General Prayut or General Prawit may try leading a minority coalition to lawfully win the seat with the support of senators. With 176 MPs, they can win with just 200 of the 250 senators on board. (In the previous premiership race in 2019, 249 senators voted for General Prayut, who won with 500 votes, including 251 from MPs in 19 parties.)

Such a minority government will suffer quick defeats in the House. The new PM will be obliged to either resign or dissolve the House and call an early GE. However, there is no rule for how soon the PM must form a cabinet. Via this loophole, the PM of a minority government could stay in power while PT and other opposition politicians sort out their differences and compromise when their pre-election bluffs are called. 

It is still possible that some major parties, including PT and MFP could be dissolved for violating laws and that their preferred PM candidates are disqualified. Should this happen, MPs from any dissolved party have 60 days to join a new party. They could jump ship to the parties of the “Two Uncles”, ironically.

Even if it wins the popular vote on 14 May, if PT fails to assemble a viable multi-party coalition after the GE, this could lead to its post-election downfall. But joining a coalition led by either of the unpopular “Two Uncles” is not a good option. Can Thaksin help guide the PT out of its predicament?

2023/119

Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Senior Fellow and Acting Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.