Move Forward Party's leader and prime minister candidate Pita Limjaroenrat talks to members of the media after the polls close in the general election at the party's headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, 14 May 2023. EFE-EPA/NARONG SANGNAK

Thailand Elections: Reformists awaken to new political dawn under old gov’t rules

By Lobsang DS Subirana

Bangkok, May 15 (EFE).- Thailand’s preliminary general election results Monday morning showed an overwhelming majority of the country chose to end nearly a decade of military-establishment rule, with reformists Move Forward party claiming an unexpected victory.

But the complex task of forming a government under the nation’s military-drafted constitution began then and there, as party leader Pita Limjaroenrat exited the formation’s headquarters to the cries of “prime minister, prime minister,” knowing he will have to compromise and govern in coalition if he is ever to become one.

“I think it’s safe to assume that we have secured a majority in forming a government going forward,” Pita said, adding that he had contacted five separate parties to form a 309-seat majority in the 500-seat lower house of parliament, of which his party secured 151.

Move Forward Party’s leader and prime minister candidate Pita Limjaroenrat addresses a press conference after the polls closed in the general election at the party’s headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, 14 May 2023. EFE-EPA/NARONG SANGNAK

Pheu Thai, the other major party with which Move Forward seeks an alliance, attained 141 seats, far fewer than the landslide victory it had initially projected. The formation is led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter and niece of former Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck, respectively – both ousted in separate coups in 2006 and 2014, and now in self-imposed exile.

Pita said his party would sign a memorandum of understanding with Pheu Thai to ensure transparency in the process of forming a government.

“We have proved time and time again that if we form it together we’ll be able to answer all the challenges that the country is facing,” the candidate said Sunday.

Paetongtarn’s party responded in kind Monday afternoon, saying in a statement that they wouldn’t contest for governance.

“Pheu Thai Party wishes to confirm that the party has no plan to compete with the Move Forward Party in order to form the new government,” the statement read. “Pheu Thai Party is of the opinion that the issues and process relating to the formation of the new government are for the Move Forward Party to decide.”

But because of Thailand’s charter – drafted and passed under incumbent Prime Minister Gen. Chan-ocha’s former dictatorship – the 250-seat upper house is entirely handpicked by the former coupmakers and is allowed to vote for the next head of government.

They are expected to side with their appointers, as all but one of them did following the 2019 election, in which Pheu Thai won the most seats – as it had in every election since 2001 – but lost out to the Palang Pracharath Party, who received the senate’s votes to keep Prayut in power, who’s governed since 2014.

Move Forward Party’s leader and prime minister candidate Pita Limjaroenrat inside an elevator following a press conference after the polls closed in the general election at the party’s headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, 14 May 2023. EFE-EPA/NARONG SANGNAK

For Pita to unseat Prayut, his party would require an additional 67 seats to reach the 376 needed for a simple bicameral majority. The candidate said Sunday evening that his party would never ally with the military proxy parties of the current prime minister and Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawin Wongsuwan, further narrowing his options to attain the desired total.

His other unlikely option to lead the government lies with the Bhumjaithai Party, who pushed the country’s recent legalization of cannabis and played kingmaker by joining Prayut’s coalition in the last election. However, their leader and current Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul disagrees with some major Move Forward policy proposals and would not support them in parliament.

Chief among them is the amendment of the draconian royal defamation law of Thailand’s criminal code, which punishes anyone judged to have insulted the country’s powerful monarchy with three to 15 years in prison.

The party’s progressive liberal agenda clashes with many conservative formations, not least for their intent on axing mandatory military conscription and imposing checks and balances to control the nation’s influential armed forces, artifice of 13 coups since Thailand’s first democracy in 1938.

The possibility of a new coup is always real in the country, yet the military has for now called to respect the people’s voice, as has Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, a senior member of Prayut’s United Thai Nation party, whose re-election attempt lay in tatters after securing only 36 seats.

Pita “needs to be given a chance to form a government,” he told the press Monday.

Parit “Itim” Wacharasindhu, the party’s policy campaign manager and former conscript himself, doubled down on Move Forward’s intention to rewrite the current charter and its content facilitating putsches.

“Part of our agenda is to push ahead with changes that will protect the country from military coups,” Parit said, adding that ensuring courts and the justice system do not rubber stamp or approve power grabs was essential.

While Pita said it doesn’t make sense for senators to go against the people’s will, hoping to invite their support for his bid to be elected prime minister, Thailand has a history of ruling with an iron fist through its top brass, many of whom currently sit in the upper house and would be negatively affected his party’s proposals.

They will also be wary of supporting a government allying with yet another Shinawatra family member, as Thaksin’s controversial potential return to the country and his deep fissures with the nation’s elite and military establishment surface anew.

However, should Move Forward be able to garner their vote, it would pave the way for a new era of democratic governance ahead of these and future elections, especially because the senate’s ability to vote for the prime minister will end in 2024, as per the current constitution.

It isn’t the only matter afflicting Pita, whose legality to stand as a candidate was challenged a few days before the elections when a conservative activist filed a complaint with the electoral commission to dismiss him, accusing him of having shares in a communication company.

This violates election law and befell his predecessor Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who was banned from politics in 2020 after the electoral commission dissolved the Future Forward party from which the current formation was born. Pita denies all allegations against him.

While a minority conservative government seems very unlikely, the challenge starts now for Thailand’s new-found reformist movement to truly move forward with a project in keeping with its major pledges while catering to the demands of prospective coalition partners. EFE