Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat reacts as lawmakers vote for a second time for a new prime minister, at the parliament in Bangkok on July 19. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

The real winners and losers of Thailand’s political drama

Broad coalition put populists and reformers on clashing paths

GWEN ROBINSON, Nikkei Asia editor-at-large

August 24, 2023 16:42 JS

BANGKOK — The surreal denouement of Thailand’s protracted election process was a spectacle worthy of a multi-part Netflix series. Within just 12 hours on Tuesday, after months of false starts and failed hopes, a new prime minister emerged from an improbable coalition of once-bitter rivals and a disgraced former leader returned from years of self-imposed exile. Thai voters, having handed a clear victory to the progressive Move Forward party in the May 14 polls, could be forgiven for feeling betrayed as their choice to lead the country was pushed out of the ruling coalition.

In the aftermath, veteran observers might be tempted to dismiss signs of popular discontent as a short-lived annoyance that will evaporate in the Thai propensity to gloss over aberrations, adopt a new normal and carry on. But this time, something has changed in Thai popular sentiment — the aftermath of Tuesday’s political theatrics showed a pervasive sense of betrayal and growing contempt for wheeler-dealers.

It could be seen in the trending hashtag on social media, #NotMyPM, shortly after the Thai parliament voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday for property magnate Srettha Thavisin, the prime ministerial candidate of the Pheu Thai party, which leads an 11-party coalition. It could be seen in protests by a jeering crowd outside Pheu Thai’s Bangkok headquarters.

It also figured prominently in the cynical views expressed in local media about the return earlier Tuesday of Thaksin Shinawatra, the audacious former prime minister who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and fled corruption charges in 2008. Thaksin’s subsequent sentencing to an eight-year jail term and his rapid move from prison to a government hospital hours later, after he complained of high blood pressure and insomnia, added to the cynicism amid widespread expectations of an imminent royal pardon.

But the clearest sign of voters’ sense of betrayal could be seen in the results of a national poll issued on Sunday that showed nearly two-thirds of voters disapproved of any move by Pheu Thai to form a government with its former foes, the two main military-aligned parties.

Srettha, a man who had earlier said he would not take the top post if it meant a coalition with the military-backed parties, has put a smooth face on what many see as brazen opportunism. Like his party’s strategists, he argued this week that such alliances were essential in order to implement Pheu Thai’s promised reformist policies to build a “better, more equal Thailand.”

Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin greets supporters at party headquarters in Bangkok on Aug. 22. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi) 

But his pledges and emphasis on inclusive policies, social justice and economic reform have not impressed critics and many analysts.

“With Thaksin’s stage-managed return and Pheu Thai’s ‘coalition with the devil,’ the party has basically fully revealed itself as a vehicle for Thaksin’s personal ambitions and well-being,” said a veteran European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Pheu Thai is now completely discredited in the eyes of many — just like all the others in the establishment who were discredited long ago.”

In the short term, the biggest loser in the Thai election is the Thai people, who saw their will subverted and find themselves saddled with a ruling coalition and cabinet featuring the very figures they rejected.

Longer term, the loser is likely to be the ruling coalition, particularly Pheu Thai, which first rode to power in the early 2000s as the Thai Rak Thai party on Thaksin’s populist policies but has now allied with the former generals who twice ousted the party from power, in 2006 and 2014.

The party now sits atop what will be a completely unworkable coalition of 11 parties, with unpalatable options in the sharing of cabinet positions between the key groups.

Thai political views have undergone a tectonic shift from embracing populism to craving structural and institutional reform, prominent Thai analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak says. Yet, Thitinan notes, “Pheu Thai is now trapped in the politics of its own making from the 2000s and 2010s, and stuck with its saturated populism and the Thaksin conundrum.”

The biggest winner, meanwhile, is the Move Forward Party. Having won the most parliamentary seats of any party — 151 of 500 in parliament’s lower house, and about 36% of direct votes  it will be the strongest opposition force in Thai political history. It controls all but one of Bangkok’s 33 parliamentary seats and took a significant number of seats from Pheu Thai in Thaksin’s own northern heartland.

In the earlier round of parliamentary voting, some voters reacted with outrage to Pheu Thai’s decision to oust Move Forward from an initial eight-party coalition, largely over professed concerns about its policies on lese-majeste laws that ban criticism of the monarchy. But many Move Forward members now acknowledge that it was a fortunate outcome. Rather than finding itself faced with constant compromises to stay in an unwieldy coalition, it can influence and even set parliamentary agendas. It can stay above the fray, keep principles intact, and continue to nurture its vibrant support base. And, as a young party, it has time on its side to expand its base even further before the next election.

The disqualification of Move Forward’s charismatic young leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, as a prime ministerial candidate in the first parliamentary vote due to a small inherited stake in a defunct media company only appears to have strengthened sympathy and support for the party and its original founder, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who in 2020 was disqualified from politics for 10 years over party finance issues.

In the smoldering embers of a short-lived but widely celebrated sense of democratic empowerment after the election, supporters have signaled their unswerving loyalty for the party. Any further moves by Thai courts to bar Pita and possibly other party members from politics could rebound on the ruling coalition.

Longer term, Move Forward’s biggest victory is already clear: It has moved the goal posts in Thai politics and fundamentally altered the nature of future elections. Against its bold platforms of reforming the draconian lese majeste laws, breaking up monopolies, decentralizing power and launching meaningful economic reforms, rival Pheu Thai’s populist promises of financial handouts — including a 10,000-baht ($285) digital wallet for all Thais over 16, a 600-baht minimum daily wage and higher crop prices — look facile and old-school.

The next election is five years away. For a brief — and for many, glorious — moment there was a sense of what true change would be like. The change that came was anything but glorious, although it may well be brief.