Thailand’s new political landscape begins to take shape

Prayut Chan-Ocha looks likely to win enough support to continue as Prime Minister. However, pro-democracy parties have made big inroads and could check his power.

By John Pennington

Nearly six weeks after Thais went to the polls, the make-up of the government is starting to take shape. Unfortunately for supporters of pro-democracy parties such as the Pheu Thai party (PT) and Future Forward, it looks as if Prayut Chan-Ocha, the man behind the 2014 coup, will continue as Prime Minister.

However, he has not secured a huge majority and even with the backing of 11 small parties, only just passes the threshold required to form a government. There is no guarantee his coalition will last or be in the best interests of the country’s future.

On March 24, the Thai public went to the polls.

The results did not give any party or coalition a clear advantage

35 million people voted in Thailand’s first elections since 2014. No one party won an absolute majority in the 500-seat House of Representatives – the lower of the two houses of parliament. Prayut’s Palang Pracharat party (PP) won 136 seats, which when combined with the 250-seat Senate, left it 10 short of the number needed to form a government.

The seven-party Democratic Front (DF) coalition, made up of PT, Future Forward and five others, claimed 245 seats – six short of gaining a majority in the House. They needed to win 376 to claim an absolute majority as the Senate, the upper house, was appointed by a junta-led committee. As expected, it named 250 pro-junta senators, the majority of whom have links to the military and police.

Adding to the confusion, the Electoral Commission awarded 11 small parties one seat each after 150 seats were allocated based on nationwide voting patterns. Those 11 parties won just 548,208 votes combined – or 1.5% of the national vote. In the days and weeks following the election, they held the balance of power.

Future Forward claimed the commission’s calculations saw them lose seven seats – which would have been enough to give them a majority in the lower house. Its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit railed against what he feels was “a definitely not free and fair election”. PT says it will mount a legal challenge against the results.

Photo Credit: Kremlin

Those 11 parties are now poised to join forces with PP and form a loose coalition that will – provided the upper and lower houses approve – see Prayut continue as PM. It is a weak coalition that does not offer much stability. It will only take a handful of dissenting voices on a vote-by-vote basis to prevent PP from passing legislation.

“The biggest challenge is how they survive,” said Prajak Kongkirati, an assistant political science professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok. “Maintaining political stability will be the biggest concern of the new government.”

The situation is fluid and could yet change further

However, the parliamentary picture could still change. Bhumjaithai, which won 51 seats has not yet decided whether to ally with PP or not. Anutin Charnvirukal, the Bhumjaithai leader, plans to visit constituencies that voted in his favour to gauge the feeling of the electorate before committing his party to one side or the other. Allying with PP would strengthen Prayut’s coalition; joining forces with DF would give the coalition the upper hand in the lower house.

The same is true of the Democrats, which won 50 seats. It has just elected Jurin Laksanavisit as its new leader. He must now decide which coalition Thailand’s oldest political party will join.

However, some Democratic Front elected officials are also facing legal challenges. Thanathorn himself stands accused of sedition. Others must answer charges of being in contempt of court and breaching computer crime law.

They claim these are unjustified and intimidatory tactics from the junta. If they are found guilty and unable to take their seats, that will strengthen the junta’s position.

Who else could succeed Prayut as PM?

As things stand, Prayut is the favourite to become PM. He needs fewer allies than his rivals to claim a majority. He has also locked in 250 votes from the Senate and 126 from the House – in theory, enough to command a majority.

However, there are other men in the frame. Ampon Kittiampon emerged as a contender to lead a unity government, although if Prayut cobbles together a coalition with a big enough working majority, his chances will recede. Nevertheless, he is viewed as a man who could bridge the significant differences between the two coalitions.

Bhumjaithai leader Charnvirukal is another plausible alternative. He may lead his party into a coalition PP with the proviso that he becomes PM.

The election lived up to expectations

Nobody expected Thailand’s return to civilian-led democracy to go smoothly. Critics of the junta argued that it chose to hold elections merely to pay lip service to democracy and further entrench its power. The electoral commission’s actions certainly worked in its favour, whether it was influenced to do so or not.

However, the pro-democracy parties have made significant inroads. They may yet act as a check on Prayut’s power, particularly if he must manage a weak coalition. Uncertainty about the country’s political future will not help the economy.

The coalition could collapse. The Democratic Front might not topple Prayut in the weeks and months to come, but it is not giving up the fight. “We lose this election, but we’re not losing the game,” said Thanathorn. “This is a long journey. It’s not about this election. It’s going to take decades. It’s going to be a long road.”