The politics of post-poll govt formation
ABROAD AT HOME
published : 21 Apr 2023 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
As the campaign season heats up ahead of Thailand's poll on May 14, voter surveys have consistently indicated that the momentum favours the opposition Pheu Thai (PTP) and Move Forward (MFP) parties well ahead of the government side, comprising Palang Pracharath (PPRP), United Thai Nation (UTN), Bhumjaithai (BJP) and Democrat (DP) parties. On the personal popularity of prime minister candidates, survey results similarly suggest that the MFP's Pita Limjaroenrat and the PTP's Paetongtarn Shinawatra are neck and neck, followed by the PTP's Srettha Thavisin and the UTN's and incumbent premier Prayut Chan-o-cha.
The election has yet to take place, and its actual outcome could yet yield surprises. But based on the foregoing trends, there are at least three issues to keep an eye on.
First, the PTP and MFP's favourable prospects deserve full appreciation and recognition. These two parties are anti-military and anti-coup, representing change and reform. Their past incarnations were dissolved by the Constitutional Court on dubious charges, whereas their competing pro-coup parties were untouched and insulated all along. In fact, the PTP was disbanded twice, as Thai Rak Thai in May 2007 and as Palang Prachachon in December 2008. Dozens of elected politicians from these two parties also faced five-year bans from running for office.
That the PTP was able to regroup and win the next two elections in 2011 and 2019 speaks volume about what is happening in Thai politics. The vast majority of Thai voters are not in favour of military coups and military-inspired constitutions and governments. Otherwise, they would not have kept throwing their support behind Pheu Thai.
The MFP's dissolution is even more telling. This was a brand-new party set up to contest the March 2019 poll by younger political leaders who were not aligned and answerable to Thaksin Shinawatra, the founder and patriarch of the PTP. Among the charges against the MFP's predecessor, Future Forward Party, was that its symbol resembled the Illuminati cult and was, therefore, a danger to the Thai state.
In the end, it was struck down because of a loan scheme wherein Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit lent a documented sum to his party in order for it to operate. One way or another, the party was going to be brought down because of its reformist stand against the military and monarchy. Mr Thanathorn and other party executives were banned not for five but ten years from running for office.
The trajectories of these two parties are the real story of Thai politics. Both now call for transparency and accountability of the military, getting rid of conscription and making the armed forces professional. Both also want a new constitution drafted by people's representatives, including reform of the monarchy, although the MFP is firmer than the PTP on this sensitive issue. Nevertheless, the PTP and MFP's formidable chances at the poll are the second factor to watch.
Many fear a political showdown in the event he PTP somehow comes up with an overall "landslide" majority in the 500-member Lower House, while the MFP garners up to or more than the 81 MPs it won for the first time four years ago. If these two parties wipe out the field with big numbers, it would be tantamount to a political earthquake. The traditional institutions revolving around the military, including the judiciary and sections of the bureaucracy as well as Bangkok-based elites, may oppose them at all costs. Depending on how well the PTP and MFP do in the election, Thailand could land itself in yet another political crisis later this year.
This is why the third issue involves compromise. While the dream team for progressives and reformers would be a coalition government led by the PTP and MFP, a more conciliatory and workable outcome would be a combination of the PTP and the PPRP, the latter led by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, a former army chief who was part of the military government after the May 2014 putsch. What sets PPRP apart from UTN is that Gen Prawit declared in parliament at one point that he had no knowledge and no part in staging the coup, a revelation which Gen Prayut immediately acknowledged. PTP's "red line" naturally would be not to have anything to do with Gen Prayut and the UTN.
A coalition government led by the PTP and PPRP would also split the Senate vote and perhaps keep the army onside and away from coup considerations. Gen Prawit is more popular among the top brass and the 250 junta-appointed senators than Gen Prayut. Biting the bullet on a PTP-PPRP tie-up will be hard to do for many. But options are limited.
The choice depends on the objective. If this election is first and foremost about seeing the end of the military-backed Prayut regime of the past nine years, then a PTP-PPRP partnership should not be rejected outright. After all, the PPRP started out by poaching factions from the PTP during the military government in the run-up to the 2019 poll. These two parties are thus no strangers to each other.
Some are painting this scenario as trickery on the PTP's part, but that is not the case. If the PTP forms a government with the MFP, the poll-leading party would be accused of subversion of the throne. When the PTP's predecessor Thai Rak Thai ran a one-party government in 2005, it was accused of parliamentary dictatorship. The PTP's dilemma is Thailand's political uncertainty after the election.
Over the past two decades, it has been clear where Thailand is going, despite military coups and consequently concocted constitutions as well as judicial interventions. The showdown in Thai politics between progressives and reformers on one side and conservatives and royalists on the other is already taking place in its own right. This is why the PTP is on course for another major poll victory and the MFP remains resilient and increasingly appealing to younger voters.
This is also why more time is needed beyond this election for change and adjustment to take place in favour of pro-democracy forces.
Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University
A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.
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