By Kheetanat Synth Wannaboworn and Walden Bello*
After over three months of Thailand being put on hold as the country’s political adversaries tried to figure a way out of the surprising results of the May elections, a solution was finally reached among contending parties in the third week of August. It was a victory for the establishment, a modus vivendi among its different factions.
Seasoned observers say the elements of the deal were the following: Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former Prime Minister, would be allowed to return to Thailand with a promise of kid’s glove treatment for his alleged offenses; The Pheu Thai Party, Thaksin’s personal political vehicle, would lead a governing coalition that would include two defeated parties associated with the powerful military; and the Move Forward Party, which had won the most seats in the May parliamentary elections, would be frozen out of the governing coalition.
The deal that united Thaksin with his former enemies, the military and the conservative establishment, drew anger, consternation, and confusion throughout the country. Former Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, a Thaksin foe and former Democrat Party leader who has also become a severe critic of the military and the lese majeste law on penalizing people accused of defaming the royalty, summed the situation up tongue in cheek: “The reality is that this government is composed of personalities from the conservative establishment side. Arch-enemies, Thaksin and the generals are now together as one to put up a stand (maybe the last one) against the forces of change. We must be reminded that Thaksin has all along been part of the establishment. But he wanted to monopolize and was opposed by the rest. Now various elements of the establishment have rejoined one another. The Thai political arena is now a struggle between the established elites and the masses. More dramas will surely come to delight and bewilder all of us.”
On the other hand, spokespeople for the Pheu Thai party said that the deal, which would make real estate mogul Srettha Thavisin prime minister, was necessary to end over three months of political uncertainty owing to the absence of a ruling parliamentary coalition.
The country’s latest crisis erupted when the MFP unexpectedly won the most votes in the parliamentary elections of May 14, 2023. It won 151 seats, besting its coalition partner, the Pheu Thai party, that raked in 141 seats. Left in the dust were the parties controlled by the ruling military regime that gathered a measly 76 seats.
Move Forward’s rise was nothing short of mercurial. Founded just five years ago, in 2018, its first incarnation as Future Forward came in third in the parliamentary elections of 2019. Then, coming in first in 2023, it won 14 million votes, or 40 percent of votes cast, up from 13 per cent in 2019. It frustrated the legal maneuvers that the military-controlled Constitutional Court threw at it. The Court dissolved Future Forward in February 2020, only to see it resurrected as Move Forward a month later, with a new leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, who declared that “Move Forward is the new chapter of Future Forward.”
To be Prime Minister, Pita had to get 376 votes from the 750 members of the bicameral National Assembly. He already had the votes of the eight-party opposition coalition but, going into the July 13, he needed to secure more, and this had to come either from the rest of the lower house or from the Senate, or both. Parliament concluded a two-hour voting session with Pita securing 324 votes in his favor, 182 votes against and 199 abstentions in the first round, falling short of the 375 votes needed to become premier by 51 votes.
The most decisive force that shaped the outcome of July 13 were the 250 senators–all of whom were appointed by the military, who considered themselves the “guardians of the Kingdom’s three pillars” – Nation, Religion, and the King. Pita hardly picked up any votes from this solid bloc.
The Parliament reconvened on July 19, but Pita’s opponents refused to have a second renomination on the grounds that he had already been rejected a week earlier. As the debate ensued, the Constitutional Court separately announced Pita had been suspended as a lawmaker over an allegation he violated election rules by holding shares in a private firm.
At this point, it became very clear that under no circumstances would the establishment allow Move Forward to lead the government or even be part of a governing coalition—indeed, not even if it were to give up its plan to reform Article 112 of the criminal code, the royal defamation law. Pheu Thai then stepped in to lead the process of establishing a new government and, during a month-long period of intense negotiations, it junked Move Forward and moved to an accommodation with other parties, including the two defeated parties connected with the generals that had ruled the country for the last nine years.
Thaksin’s return to Thailand to face lenient treatment is said to be the deal that opened the way to a governing alliance among former foes. Hours after his return on August 20, Parliament elected his man Srettha, with 482 votes from the 727 politicians, as prime minister. The only significant party to vote against Srettha in the parliamentary election was Move Forward and its 149 MPs eligible to vote.
Srettha will lead a fragile coalition of 11 parties. According to press reports, Pheu Thai announced that it would control eight cabinet posts and nine deputy cabinet posts. It also disclosed that the parties of the military – Palang Pracharath and United Thai Nation – will receive two cabinet posts and two deputy posts each. Pheu Thai further revealed that the coalition had agreed to “support” Pheu Thai’s platform of boosting the economy, increasing the minimum wage, ending mandatory military service, supporting the continued legalization of medical marijuana, and amending the constitution to make the country “become more democratic,” while leaving untouched the royal defamation law. This statement has been received with great skepticism by the public.
The deal has largely unsettled and angered most of the electorate, which saw the May election’s results as a clear mandate for fundamental change.
Will what some have termed the “Back from the Future Coalition” or the “Fast Backward Alliance” be able to defuse the smoldering anger that is the overwhelming response to its formation?
Some observers are of the opinion that this time, the establishment has overreached and, while people are not yet out in the streets in protest, they will come out eventually, leading to another round of intense street battles, like the ones that led to the military coup in 2014.
Others do not see the governing coalition lasting very long, expecting the infighting among former bitter enemies to resume in short order, especially since there is really no agreement on a common program except to form a government. Behind the scenes, the formidable Thaksin and the equally formidable military-backed conservative establishment will be calling the shots, and it’s unlikely they’ll find common ground if they are not to disappoint their constituencies. The mass base of Thaksin, the so-called Redshirts, are expecting his populist agenda to resume after being frozen for almost a decade, while the elite is determined to make no concessions on the social and economic front.
Coming out of the deal, Thaksin and Pheu Thai, some say, are likely to be the big losers, being seen by a significant bloc of former supporters as having betrayed the popular mandate in order to promote the interests of the party and the Thaksin family. Thaksin is seen by many former sympathizers as a has-been. Move Forward has captured their political imagination, the way Thaksin did two decades ago.
Move Forward, ironically, is the one force that has come out of the whole messy affair untarnished. It never gave up on its promise to reform the lese majeste law. It escaped the dirty wheeling and dealing that it would have had to engage in to gain enough support from the forces of the old order to form a new ruling coalition. It will now be able to engage in uncompromising opposition politics, which is in sync with the dark, angry, resentful mood of the majority of the citizenry.
An indication of what lies ahead is the #CONFORALL signature campaign. Determined to have a new constitution that truly reflects the will of the citizens, the People’s Constitution Drafting Group–a network of CSOs and activist groups—is calling for a referendum on having a new charter drafted by a 100-percent elected committee. Three days ahead of the deadline set by the Election Commission for it to receive the people’s petition before the first Cabinet meeting in early September, organizers were told by the Commission that most of the 113,912 names that had been collected so far from offline and online gatherings were invalid since only signatures on paper documents would be recognized. In the next three days, 205,739 signatures on paper stormed into the campaign’s head office – four times larger than the 50,000 threshold required by law. One elated observer said this reminded her of the time the slogan “You messed with the Wrong Generation!” became the battle cry of the 2020 youth uprising. “The battle lines are being drawn,” she said.
* Kheetanat Synth Wannaboworn and Walden Bello are members of the staff of the Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South.