Coalition dance begins
Parties size up their chances for taking office after next poll
Several possible formulas for the formation of the next government are emerging with Bhumjaithai, the second largest coalition partner, poised to emerge as the most coveted party, according to politicians and experts.
However, the business of cobbling together parties to materialise a government is only half the battle. The bloc must also win a prime ministerial nomination in parliament, which invariably involves pleasing the Senate.
Conjecture about what the next government will look like is taking off after the Election Commission tentatively set May 7 next year as the date for the general elections.
The poll date is declared in tandem with the fast-approaching expiry of the term of MPs, on March 23 next year.
As some parties have decided to hit the campaign trail early, they are also reaching out for potential suitors with whom to forge an alliance to put together the next government.
The main opposition Pheu Thai Party lost no time unveiling its ambitious goal of winning the next election by a landslide, or at least 250 MP seats to be exact, in hopes of establishing a single-party government.
However, the party's goal may be easier said than done. That may be a reason Pheu Thai has hinted at the possibility of teaming up with its arch rival, the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), and creating an unlikely coalition partnership.
But Pheu Thai leader Dr Cholnan Srikaew has insisted its "inter-bloc" alliance with any current coalition party comes with strings attached -- that the party must share a common ideology with the Pheu Thai, must not support any dictatorship or Gen Prayut, and that its campaign manifesto must be compatible with its own.
Pheu Thai rules nothing out
Sutin Klungsang, Pheu Thai deputy leader and MP for Maha Sarakham, conceded parties on the so-called "pro-democratic" side, or the present opposition bloc, would naturally look to one another to form a government.
But it is the outcome of the next polls that will decide the course of action. If the opposition camp fails to gain enough MPs to set up a government, it will need to approach a party or parties with compatible policies and political standpoints from the rival bloc.
"We're ready to work with parties with a similar stance. If we have to, we'll take up with any coalition party, be it the PPRP, the Bhumjaithai or the Democrats.
"But we have to wait and see how things pan out," Mr Sutin said.
He said any coalition partner must be of suitable size. A government that is too large is not always desirable as it should be fairly stable with the right amount of MPs.
Mr Sutin admits Pheu Thai has a lot to ponder in joining forces with the PPRP as it risks losing the support of its supporters who oppose the ruling party. But if the party had no choice, he believed it would be able to convince its supporters to accept the PPRP into the coalition fold.
PPRP: No stopping hook-ups
A source in the PPRP said that in theory, all parties are inclined to band together in the interests of forming a government, although it is a fluid matter. He said the Pheu Thai has been less active in waging its campaign of late.
The source said the current coalition line-up may regroup and return as the government after the next polls. On the other hand, there is no stopping any of them hooking up with the current opposition parties for a shot at Government House.
The opposition party which may find itself isolated is the Move Forward Party (MFP) on account of an election policy it is planning to pursue, which is amending the highly-sensitive Section 112 of the Criminal Code, more widely known as the lese majeste law.
The source said the MFP itself might not see much hope of pushing for the law change. However, it prioritised the proposed amendment to maintain its support base of mostly young people.
"Had the Pheu Thai jumped on the amendment bandwagon, it might have drawn away some voters from the MFP," he said.
The source argued the MFP's stance on modifying Section 112 has almost eliminated the chance of Pheu Thai and the MFP forming a government together. This may explain why Pheu Thai was turning to parties across the bloc as possible future coalition partners.
Pheu Thai was keeping its options open while its "no-Prayut" condition may be an attempt to drive a wedge between Gen Prayut and PPRP leader Gen Prawit Wongsuwon.
The condition could compel Gen Prawit, also deputy prime minister, to dump Gen Prayut as the PPRP's prime ministerial candidate if he finally decides the PPRP will take up an offer of being part of the next Pheu Thai-led administration.
The source added some Pheu Thai members were frustrated with the undemocratic way the party was being run. However, the party has experienced relatively less infighting than the PPRP which suffered an image deficit brought on by a slew of negative publicity.
Gen Prayut has filled the role of the PPRP's front man while Gen Prawit has done nothing to upstage him.
Senate decides the government
Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok's Institute, said if Pheu Thai were to be the core party founding the next government, it would likely count the PPRP as coalition partner, minus Gen Prayut. Other parties potentially taking part in the line-up are Bhumjaithai, Seri Ruam Thai and Chartthaipattana.
The formula must command at least 375 MPs between the coalition parties, the minimum number needed to win a prime ministerial nomination in parliament. Anything less than 375 would require the help of senators appointed by the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order, which has been criticised as a vehicle for ensuring Gen Prayut can maintain his grip on power and return as prime minister.
But if the new coalition group fails to gain the support of 375 MPs and must seek help from senators to vote for a prime minister candidate other than Gen Prayut, it would be seen as double-crossing Gen Prayut.
Mr Stithorn said another formula was for any party which sets out to nominate Gen Prayut as prime minister to form a government with Bhumjaithai and the Democrats.
In the first step, the party nominating Gen Prayut and the PPRP need to come up with at least 125 MPs between them, who will combine forces with 250 senators to vote for Gen Prayut to return as premier.
Once Gen Prayut has secured his return, the newly set up coalition camp could invite the Bhumjaithai and the Democrats to be its partners.
Even if the bloc is still short of the 250 MPs needed to cross the majority threshold, it could ask other parties such as Chartpattanakla, Sang Anakhot Thai and Thai Sang Thai to be coalition allies.
The political science expert said that in case neither the party nominating Gen Prayut as prime minister nor the PPRP made the cut as the second biggest party, the spot likely would be overtaken by Bhumjaithai which has consolidated strength from accepting many defector MPs into its fold.
There could be dilemma where the Bhumjaithai emerges as bigger than the party nominating Gen Prayut as prime minister and the PPRP, but would form a government with them, Mr Stithorn said.
"Would the Bhumjaithai fight to have its leader win the prime ministerial nomination? Would the party agree to Gen Prayut occupying the prime minister's seat for the first half of the four-year term and let its leader fill the remaining years?" he asked.
The Constitutional Court decided Gen Prayut has two more years remaining as prime minister. If he returns as premier after the next elections, he will not be able to complete his term.
"Whichever way you look at it, Bhumjaithai can comfortably secure a place in the next government. But whether its leader will be prime minister is the question," Mr Stithorn said.
Turning to Pheu Thai, he said the main opposition party has a shot at a landslide win in the polls as long as the government bloc is disunited.
Pheu Thai may also be hoping the coalition parties will undercut one another's support base in the constituencies. However, that rivalry may pale compared to the intense fighting expected between Pheu Thai and the MFP in some constituencies.
Bhumjaithai, the swing party
Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political science lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said three formulas are on the cards: the current coalition bloc coming back with Bhumjaithai replacing the PPRP as the ruling party; the coming-to-power of the current opposition wing; and the "inter-bloc" composition of Pheu Thai and Bhumjaithai or the two parties plus the MFP.
The inter-bloc option may gain credence if Gen Prayut is off the prime ministerial candidate list.
He said the 250 senators will play a crucial role in picking a prime minister and shaping a government. It is possible that at least 375 MPs can band together and agree to vote on a common prime ministerial choice.
"MPs are from diverse backgrounds, unlike the more united Senate," he said.
Bhumjaithai, led by Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, is tantamount to a swing party that sets its target on being coalition member. It has worked as part of the Prayut administration for four years. Historically, it broke away from the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party which reincarnated into the People's Power Party, from whose ashes rose Pheu Thai.
"Bhumjaithai is on speaking terms with many politicians and core members [in the Pheu Thai]," he said.
He predicted Pheu Thai will take the place of the biggest party at the next poll, followed by Bhumjaithai, the PPRP or the MFP, and the Democrats.
"Bhumjaithai will be a force to be reckoned with in the next polls," he said.