Will MFP rain on Pheu Thai's parade?

Will MFP rain on Pheu Thai's parade?

Pita Limjaroenrat, the Move Forward Party's (MFP) leader and prime ministerial candidate, poses for a picture during an election campaign event in the capital on April 22. (Photo: Reuters)
Pita Limjaroenrat, the Move Forward Party's (MFP) leader and prime ministerial candidate, poses for a picture during an election campaign event in the capital on April 22. (Photo: Reuters)

Now that the final countdown to the national election has started, numerous opinion polls suggest strongly that while Pheu Thai is still in the lead, its aim for a landslide could be just a pipe dream given the sharp rise in popularity of the Move Forward Party (MFP) which over the past few weeks has gone from strength to strength.

In fact, there is speculation that the MFP, if it can maintain the surge of popularity until the poll date on May 14, may overtake Bhumjaitai (BJT) as the runner-up.

There is an expectation that Pheu Thai under Paetongtarn Shinawatra and Srettha Thavisin could grab, at best, 220-240 seats out of the total 500 seats, followed by the MFP, which is expected to secure 70-100 and the BJT at 50-80. The so-called conservative alliance of the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party under Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) under Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, and the Democrat Party led by Jurin Laksanawisit may each get hold of 30-50 seats. Altogether, the combined gains of the three parties would hardly exceed 150.

All eyes are on Pheu Thai and the MFP -- former allies in the opposition bloc -- as the contest between them has intensified. With MFP fever rising, Pheu Thai finds its support base significantly diminished. The MFP's growing popularity has something to do with its clear stance against the parties associated with the ex-junta, a terse discourse by its leader Pita Limjaroenrat, who has ruled out any partnership with the military, thus enabling his party to get the nod from many undecided voters.

Besides, Mr Pita's decisiveness regarding the contentious lese majeste law -- that it's not the party's flagship policy but rather a business to be taken care of by parliament after the poll -- is a turning point. Such a clear-cut stance makes the party an option for middle-class voters who are bored with the junta but despise Pheu Thai and fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Voters' desire for change and the MFP's aim to tackle structural problems such as business monopolies and reform the army, as well as its aspirations toward decentralisation and democratisation, make the party a red-hot political choice for voters, particularly among the younger demographic.

Speculation about the cabinet has also been twirling. Basically, it's believed Pheu Thai will lead a coalition, with Mr Srettha as its first candidate for PM and Ms Paetongtarn -- who has just delivered a child -- as the party's No.2 choice. The party is to join hands with the MFP and a few smaller parties from the conservative side, like the BJT.

This formula would require at least 375 MPs between the coalition parties, the minimum number needed to win a prime ministerial nomination in parliament. If the alliance can grab just shy of 375, senators appointed by the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order would fill the void.

The first scenario sees Pheu Thai, the MFP, the BJT and some smaller parties from both political spectrums -- namely, Prachachart, Seri Ruam Thai, Chartthaipattana, Chartpattana Kla and Thai Sang Thai -- as partners.

Observers think pro-democracy elements would find this formula acceptable. With more than 250 MPs in their pocket, Pheu Thai and the MFP have the legitimacy to form a coalition, while the BJT has made it clear it stands open to joining any camp as long as they support its medical cannabis policy.

At the beginning, Pheu Thai was reluctant to join hands with the MFP, as it worried some of the latter's harsh policies, like army reform, may be unfavourable factors in dealing with those who adhere to the status quo when forming a government.

But MFP fever gives the party little choice but to reconsider. Besides, this formula, without ex-junta elements, would help them win wide support from every group in their political base, like young and senior voters and those in the middle class, both in the city and provinces.

Scenario 2 sees Pheu Thai join a coalition with the PPRP, BJT and smaller parties. Pheu Thai initially eyed this formula as it would secure support from senators under Gen Prawit's control, enabling it to fulfil its political dream. But the MFP's popularity as a result of Mr Pita's "no to junta" stance prompted Pheu Thai to make a swift U-turn, dumping the PPRP. Therefore, Pheu Thai should be well aware it would come at a high political cost for the party if it were to go back to the PPRP, leaving the MFP to lead the opposition, as that would be a betrayal of pro-democracy voters.

For scenario 3, pro-military parties like the PPRP and UTN lead a coalition with the BJT and Democrat Party and some minor parties. This scenario would mean the conservative side refuses to throw in the towel and instead forms a minority government. It is possible if they could gather half, or almost half, of the Lower House, somewhere between 230-260 MPs, and seek the service of the 250-strong Senate for its PM candidate, either Gen Prayut or Gen Prawit.

Once a government is formed, they would apply the same old trick of luring "cobras" (wayward politicians who betray their original parties in exchange for money or positions from other parties) to strengthen the coalition. But this is not easy as they would face public opposition, including protests in and outside parliament. In parliament, opposition MPs may shoot down the Budget Bill in July. If successful, the government would have to resign, and chaos would ensue.

The worst-case scenario sees the old powers try to block Pheu Thai and the MFP from forming a government by using junta-installed mechanisms like the Senate. If this political tug-of-war drags on, the Senate could intervene by not endorsing the former opposition bloc's PM candidate despite its success at the poll -- an act tantamount to ignoring the public mandate. This is highly likely if Pheu Thai and the MFP fail to gather 375 MPs in time. If the contest is protracted, Section 272 of the charter allows for an "outside" PM. This would be possible if at least half of the Lower House proposes to the parliament president -- with two-thirds of parliament or at least 500 out of 750 MPs from both Houses -- that all of the candidate names submitted by political parties be dropped. Then one in 10 of the Lower House, or 50 MPs, could propose any name as an outside PM. This would need an endorsement from half of the Lower House, or 251 MPs.

This "worst-case" formula would plunge the country into more crisis.

If the Pheu Thai and MFP win massively in the poll, the Senate should respect the voters' mandate. Instead of serving the old powers, the Senate, with other agencies, should use its time to scrutinise the new government before its tenure expires next year.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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