15 May 2023

“I am ready to be the prime minister for all...”


Pita Limjaroenrat

The results of yesterday’s election show that the progressive Move Forward and populist Pheu Thai have vastly outperformed all the pro-military parties in Thailand’s government. Of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives, Move Forward won 152 and Pheu Thai have 141, a remarkable achievement for Move Forward and an unequivocal rejection of the military establishment.

Move Forward was formed after the Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward party in 2020. Its manifesto includes an end to military conscription and a plan to reduce the scope of the lèse-majesté law. Pheu Thai, which has several previous incarnations affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra (Thai Rak Thai and the People Power Party), won a majority in 2011 and also won the highest number of seats in the 2019 election.

Move Forward announced this morning that they had formed a coalition with Pheu Thai and a handful of smaller parties, giving them a total of 310 seats. At a press conference today, party leader Pita Limjaroenrat confidently declared: “I am ready to be the prime minister for all, whether you agree with me or you disagree with me.” He still faces a legal obstacle, however: he is currently under investigation for ownership of media shares—a stake in the defunct iTV—a charge that previously led to the disqualification of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as leader of Future Forward. If Pita became prime minister, and was later found guilty by the Constitutional Court, he and his cabinet would be forced to step down, as happened to Samak Sundaravej in 2008.

Pita’s candidacy as prime minister also remains uncertain due to the influence of the junta-appointed Senate. Despite Move Forward’s mandate from the electorate, 376 votes—a majority of both MPs and senators—are required to become PM, according to article 272 of the constitution. Since the 2019 election, there have been three parliamentary votes to remove article 272, and the amendment proposal failed on all three occasions, though sixty-three senators voted for it at least once. Move Forward is banking on their support, but so far only a handful have pledged to vote for him.

On the other hand, if enough of the 250 senators joined with the 190 non-coalition MPs, voting as a pro-military bloc for a single alternative candidate, they could prevent Pita from leading a new government. This is a distinct possibility—turkeys don’t vote for Christmas—and in that case, there’s a chance that the coalition could collapse if the other parties were persuaded to abandon Move Forward and form a government that was more palatable to the establishment. (There are persistent rumours that Pheu Thai is preparing for this eventuality, though it would risk losing the support of its red-shirt base if it entered into a pact with the military.)

If recent political history is any guide, Move Forward also faces the prospect of judicial intervention, as the Constitutional Court has ruled against anti-military parties in each of the last five elections. The 2006 election was invalidated and TRT, the winning party, was dissolved. The PPP was dissolved after winning the 2007 election, and its leader was disqualified. Yingluck Shinawatra, who won the 2011 election, was disqualified. The 2014 election was invalidated. Thai Raksa Chart was dissolved in the runup to the 2019 election, followed by the disqualification of Thanathorn and the dissolution of Future Forward.

Pita has called on the senators to respect the election result and endorse him as prime minister, though his optimism may be misplaced. Move Forward’s proposal to amend the lèse-majesté law crosses a red line for the military, which the senators represent, and some non-coalition MPs have already refused to vote for Pita for the same reason. The new coalition has a majority in the House of Representatives, so it could defeat a military-backed minority government in a vote of no confidence, though this outcome would lead to further political instability.