What’s Interesting about the Thai General Election is not Who Wins but What Comes After
Pheu Thai (PT), Thailand’s chief opposition party, looks certain to win the largest number of House seats in the upcoming general election on 14 May. But coming first in the poll does not guarantee PT the lead in forming a new government.
In Thailand’s upcoming general election on 14 May, Pheu Thai (PT), the chief opposition party, looks certain to win the largest number of seats in the House of Representatives. But it does not necessarily follow that the party will definitely land the next premiership for its candidate.
Also uncertain is whether the PT will be able to score a “landslide” victory and win at least 250 seats to control the 500-member House. Without a “landslide” victory, the PT will face difficulties in finding enough support from other parties to secure the next premiership for its candidate. In order to win the premiership, a candidate needs at least 376 votes of support in a joint parliamentary session of the House’s 500 MPs and the Senate’s 250 members. Not many senators would vote for anyone from the PT.
If it wants to join a victorious coalition, one pragmatic concession is for the PT to forego vying for the premiership, and instead support another party’s candidate who is more acceptable to a majority of the senators. Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, leader of Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), the largest in the current government coalition, is one such candidate.
On the other hand, the PPRP and four of its ally parties from the government coalition shoring up General Prayut’s premiership (June 2019 – March 2023) may form a rival minority coalition. This group can win the premiership for its candidate, presumably General Prawit, with strong support of senators.
However, such a minority government is doomed to fail in governing because it will not be able to pass any significant bill in the House where the PT-led opposition controls the majority vote. It may be able to induce opposition MPs to defect to join government parties, or bribe opposition MPs to cross party lines to vote for government bills, but both strategies will be costly and unsustainable.
One conceivable quick fix is the forced dissolution of one or two parties – including the PT – for allegedly violating election law. MPs from a dissolved party can join another party within 60 days. Many of them may join parties in a PPRP-led coalition and help transform it into a viable ruling coalition.
These peculiarities in Thai politics will make the aftermath of the upcoming general election more interesting and intriguing than the poll itself.
Moreover, if exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra returns to Thailand after the general election, his presence will raise tensions and make all political deal-making talks about coalition formation even more complicated.
PHEU THAI WILL WIN BIG AGAIN
In the NIDA Poll survey outcome publicised on 19 March, the PT topped the survey conducted in early March with 49.85%. Coming second and third were respectively Move Forward, the second largest opposition party, with 17.15%, and incumbent Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s United Thai Nation (UTN), with 12.15%.
Suan Dusit Poll published on 26 March confirmed that the PT was most popular with 46.16%. In second place was still Move Forward with 15.43%. In third place, however, was Bhumjaithai (BJT) Party with 11.12%; the UTN had dropped to fourth place with only 8.73%.
Few in Thailand would be surprised by the prediction that the PT will once again win the largest number of House seats. After all, in the previous general election, on 24 March 2019, the PT came first by winning 136 House seats, having contested 250 of 350 constituencies. But it did not get any share of the party-list House seats, because it was deemed to have won more House seats than it deserved to have.
Without a “landslide” victory, the PT will face difficulties in finding enough support from other parties to secure the next premiership for its candidate. In order to win the premiership, a candidate needs at least 376 votes of support in a joint parliamentary session of the House’s 500 MPs and the Senate’s 250 members.
However, the upcoming general election will come under a new election system where two ballots are used, and without the old rule regarding how many MPs a party “deserves” to have. The number of election constituencies (all single seats) has also been increased from 350 to 400. This will benefit large well-known and well-funded parties which can field competitive candidates in all 400 constituencies.
At the same time, the number of party-list House seats has been cut from 150 to 100. The author’s own initial estimate indicates that about 392,150 second ballot votes will be required to get one party-list House seat. This will significantly disadvantage small parties. In the previous general election, one party-list House seat went to the New Palangdharma Party which garnered only 35,099 votes.
The PT is confident it will be more successful than in the previous general election, because the biggest winner will this time also get the lion’s share of the 100 party-list seats, regardless of how many seats its candidates have won in election constituencies. Therefore, the PT leadership is now clamouring for a bigger “landslide” of winning at least 310 House seats, not just 250 as it initially aimed for. Its goal is to win 260 of the 400 constituency seats, and 50 of the 100 party-list House seats.
With 310 House seats, the PT leadership believes it will be able to attract support from several parties to reach or exceed 376 votes – and win the race for the premiership, even without any support from senators. With such a success, some fair-minded senators may even turn to vote for the PT’s premiership candidate. They would not want to disregard voters’ clear mandate for the PT to lead the next government.
POTENTIAL RIVAL COALITION
It is debatable how big the PT’s “landslide” victory will turn out to be. Winning up to 250 House seats is already very difficult; and reaching 310 is highly unlikely.
NIDA Poll Director Dr Suvicha Pou-aree has predicted that the PT could win 240 to 260 House seats, based on survey data as of early March 2023. A “secret poll” conducted by security authorities (presumably from the Internal Security Operations Command or ISOC) estimated that the PT could win around 170 House seats (including 25 of the 100 party-list House seats, from 10 million second ballots).
The PT is facing stiff competition from well-funded government parties, notably the UTN, the PPRP, and the BJT whose senior leaders enjoy the advantage of incumbency and can exercise enormous government influence during the election campaign.
Moreover, the PT also has to compete with fellow opposition allies, notably Move Forward, and Thai Liberal, whose support bases are stable and solid. The PT is also troubled by Thai Sarng Thai Party led by a popular former PT veteran, Khunying Sudarat Keyurapan, who was one of the PT’s premiership candidates in the 2019 general election.
After years of political polarisation, Thai voters have remained divided between those who support the status quo (pro-government, pro-military, pro-monarchy, and anti-Thaksin parties) and those who want change and a new government to stop General Prayut’s return to power.
The polarisation can be seen in the declining number of “Undecided” in NIDA Poll’s surveys, which dropped from 28.66% in January 2022 down to 8.30% in December 2022, and 2.35% in March 2023.
The struggle for votes will take place within each of the two opposing camps. Consequently, a big gain for the PT will mean a big loss for its allies, Move Forward, and Thai Liberal.
Likewise, in order to do well, General Prayut’s UTN will have to “fish in its neighbours’ ponds”, wooing veteran politicians from the PPRP and other government parties to join the UTN, or convincing their supporters to defect and vote for his UTN’s candidates.
In response, the PPRP appears to have reached an alliance agreement with Bhumjaithai (BJT), the second largest government party of Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul. Anutin and two of his senior colleagues had lunch with General Prawit twice in March, most probably to discuss and to conclude the alliance deal.
In the 2019 general election, the PPRP won 116 House seats (19 of them party-list seats), and the BJT won 51 House seats (12 party-list seats). Over the past four years, the BJT’s strength grew to 65 House seats due to defections from other parties.
The PPRP and the BJT are confident that their alliance will attract the support of other government parties, notably Democrat, Chartthaipattana, and Chartpattanakla. Together they hope to have enough House seats to wrest the majority control in the House from a PT-led coalition.
NO ETERNAL ALLIES OR PERPETUAL ENEMIES
What will happen should a coalition led by the PPRP and the BJT fail to secure majority control in the House? Neither PPRP leader General Prawit nor BJT leader Anutin would want to venture into forming a minority government and face inevitable defeat in the House.
To avoid such a predicament, both General Prawit and Anutin have not ruled out the possibility of working with the PT in forming a new government and ending the political polarisation.
However, such a cross-over coalition will most likely exclude General Prayut’s UTN and Move Forward. General Prayut has long been at odds with Thaksin, whose youngest daughter is going to be one of the PT’s candidates for the next premiership. Move Forward, on the other hand, will not work with General Prawit and the PPRP, because it considers them a “vestige of military dictatorship”.
General Prayut can certainly see the manoeuvrings to side-line him and to isolate his UTN. If the UTN fails to win at least 25 House seats, the new and untested party cannot put forth his name in the premiership race in parliament after the general election.
There is not much that General Prayut can do now to improve his situation. He virtually has nothing new to offer Thai voters. In fact, his campaign slogan reads: “ทำแล้ว ทำอยู่ ทำต่อ” [Done that, still doing, and (will) continue to do]. He offers political continuity; but more and more Thai voters want change.
General Prayut is also handicapped by the short duration of his remaining eligibility to hold the premiership, which will reach the constitutional limit of eight years in mid-2025. In other words, even if he somehow succeeds in returning to power, he will have to step down when his eight-year eligibility ends. And another big problem looming ahead in this scenario is that his UTN does not have any well-known politician to succeed him in the premiership, except party leader Pirapan Salirathavibhaga.
On 25 March, at a media event to introduce the UTN’s 400 candidates for the upcoming general election, General Prayut officially accepted the party’s nomination of him as the No.1 premiership candidate. Pirapan was appointed the No.2 premiership candidate.
Pirapan (64) used to be one of Democrat Party’s deputy leaders; he is now secretary-general of the prime minister. Being a low-profile operator who is more comfortable working with senior bureaucrats, he lacks firepower when dealing with political heavyweights such as Thaksin, General Prawit, and Anutin.
CONCEIVABLE BUT EXTRAORDINARY SCENARIOS
Deadlock in the selection of a new prime minister will occur if a PT-led coalition fails to secure 376 votes in a joint parliamentary session of MPs and senators, and a rival minority coalition led by the PPRP and the BJT along with a majority of senators stay firm in blocking all of PT’s three premiership candidates.
The deadlock can end in a few scenarios: Either PPRP leader General Prawit or BJT leader Anutin wins the premiership with the support of a majority of senators, and forms a minority government. Then the incumbent prime minister dissolves the House and calls an early general election.
Alternatively, in order to avoid wasting time and resources in another general election so soon, the PT may give in and join the minority coalition, and let either General Prawit or Anutin become the new prime minister. The PT will then be in government. And more importantly, General Prayut will be side-lined for good.
There is not much that General Prayut can do now to improve his situation. He virtually has nothing new to offer Thai voters … He offers political continuity; but more and more Thai voters want change.
If there is no collusion between the PT and the PPRP & JBT team, then parliamentarians can look for candidates from small parties (those with fewer than 25 MPs), or outsiders not nominated by any party. While the premiership selection stays pending in parliament, General Prayut will continue to head the interim government.
In the meantime, the Election Commission will continue to quietly go over complaints of alleged wrongdoings of several major parties, including the PT, the PPRP, the BJT, and Move Forward. At least 19 cases are active and require further probing. If some of these parties are dissolved, their MPs would need to find new homes. General Prayut’s UTN will be a safe place for these party-less MPs to run to. If this happens, General Prayut may become a more viable option in the premiership race in parliament.
Yet another more dreadful scenario will have a PT-led coalition in power with a PT candidate as new prime minister. Before long, such a new government might want to help Thaksin (73) return to spend his twilight years at home with his family in Thailand. For 16 years, Thaksin has been living in exile overseas, mostly in Dubai. He faces 10 years’ jail from three criminal convictions.
If Thaksin is somehow able to return scot-free, his old enemies from the conservative side of Thai society may instigate a new round of violent protests. This will inevitably lead to bloody clashes and chaos. Before long, some army generals might step in and seize power again under the pretext of restoring peace and order. General Prayut did just that after nearly seven months of anti-Yingluck protests in Bangkok from November 2013 – May 2014. If so, Thailand will then return to square one, wasting a whole decade to the unending struggle between Thaksin and General Prayut.
The future of Thailand will be in the hands of Thai voters when they go to cast their ballots on 14 May.
Most voters may have already made up their minds.
In any case, voting for candidates and parties which support a national conciliation should be an option to keep in view.
Thailand needs all the help it can get from forward-looking Thai voters.
The country cannot count on any sacrifice from most of the political old-timers. They have neither eternal allies nor perpetual enemies; they only have permanent self-interests.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2023/24 published on 3 April 2023. The paper and its references can be accessed at this link.
Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow and Acting Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.