Exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has sought a route for his return to Thailand. Unfortunately, any new political configuration would involve a compact between the Pheu Thai Party and its erstwhile enemies. This would subvert the electoral mandate of the people.
More than three months after the 14 May general election, Thailand is nowhere close to getting a new prime minister. The uncertainty could partly be blamed on one individual: exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The over-arching reason behind the delay is the intransigence of the powerful conservative establishment, which opposes the progressive reforms of Move Forward Party (MFP), the political party which won the most seats in the election. The secondary reason for the delay is Thaksin.
The former telecoms tycoon wants to return home after almost 17 years in exile overseas. But a 10-year jail term from three convictions on corruption charges awaits him. Thaksin’s machinations to facilitate his happy return — without going to jail — have complicated calculations in all quarters.
Thaksin has gone through three plans, without success.
Plan A was the Pheu Thai Party’s (PT’s) goal for a “landslide” victory in the election. The plan was for PT — which has intimate ties to Thaksin and his family — to become the indisputable leader of a new government. In theory, a PT administration would have been able to put Thaksin in a prison hospital and fast-track his family’s appeal for a royal pardon.
Thaksin upped the ante by sending his youngest daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, to head the “Pheu Thai Family”. The party’s new informal body mobilised anti-government “Red Shirts” to support the PT. Paetongtarn soon emerged as one of the PT’s three premiership candidates; the other two are real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin and former justice minister Chaikasem Nitisiri.
However, Paetongtarn’s rallying cry to bring her father home did not arouse much public sympathy for the cause. Neither did Thaksin’s announcement on 9 May of his return before his 74th birthday on 26 July. To compound matters, a pre-election NIDA poll in early May indicated that the MFP was closing the gap with the PT. MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat also overtook Paetongtarn as the most popular premiership candidate. After the MFP scored a surprise victory in the election, Thaksin’s Plan A teetered on the brink of collapse. In the end, the MFP-led coalition (including the PT) could muster only 324 votes for Pita. This was short of the 375 majority needed for success.
“(Pheu Thai’s) stated reason is to overcome political polarisation and to help Thailand move forward with a new government. But a more important (and sinister) motive is to secure the return of Thaksin — regardless of how much disappointment this move will create for PT supporters.”
Pita’s setback created an opportunity for Thaksin to shift to Plan B to win the premiership for one of PT’s candidates. On 19 July, a resubmission of Pita’s candidacy to become premier was rejected by a majority of parliamentarians, consisting of senators and MPs of parties under the Prayut Administration.
On 5 August, PT announced its new partnership with the Bhumjaithai Party (BJT). The PT has 141 MPs and the BJT has 71. The plan was for the two parties to form a majority government by securing the votes of MPs from parties in the Prayut Administration on a personal basis, without involving their parties in the PT-led coalition.
But Thaksin’s Plan B hinged on an impossibility: the full support of the MFP’s 149 MPs, so that the PT-led coalition’s candidate could win the premiership with more than 460 votes
, even without the senators’ support. To the MFP, this is unthinkable: under PT’s plan, MFP is left out of the corridors of power, yet its parliamentary heft is required to select PT’s candidate for the prime ministerial post. Unsurprisingly, the MFP’s MPs unanimously voted on 15 August to withhold support. This put paid to Plan B. Thaksin’s Plan C saw the PT go for broke by embracing the party’s erstwhile enemies. Palang Pracharath, which has 40 MPs, is led by Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan. United Thai Nation, which has 36 MPs, was led by Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha until he staged an exit from politics on 11 July.
This bold move, however, will upset the PT’s rank and file. To them, the two generals are the auld enemies of the party. General Prawit supported General Prayut’s seizure of power in the May 2014 coup, which led to the collapse of the PT-led coalition government of PM Yingluck, Thaksin’s younger sister.
Nevertheless, Thaksin and the PT are taking the risk and hoping to gain the support of enough senators for Srettha to win the premiership. Their stated reason is to overcome political polarisation and to help Thailand move forward with a new government. But a more important motive is to secure the return of Thaksin — regardless of how much disappointment this move will create for PT supporters.
On 16 August, the Constitutional Court ruled against further consideration of the appeal concerning the resubmission of Pita’s premiership candidacy. The decision led House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha to schedule the next round of premiership selection on 22 August. On 21 August, the Nation newspaper reported that Thai officials will arrest Thaksin when he disembarks his private jet at Don Mueang Airport on Tuesday (22 August).
If Srettha fails to become prime minister, Thaksin needs a new plan to find the “right person” acceptable to more senators. Whatever new configuration Thaksin puts together is likely to leave out the MFP and be tantamount to a rejection of the people’s mandate. To the consummate dealmaker, this might be beside the point.
Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow and Acting Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.