Thailand’s Pheu Thai, the populist party linked to the deposed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is back in power for the first time since being ejected from office in a military coup in 2014 — ironically, in coalition with the proxy parties of the military junta that installed the last prime minister, Prayut Chan-ocha.
As Greg Raymond writes in this week’s lead article, ‘Thailand’s democratic processes have been subverted by not only a deeply illiberal constitution but also by a set of opaque machinations’ that unfolded in the wake of the May general election, at which Pheu Thai was unexpectedly pushed into second place by a surge of voter support for the reformist Move Forward.
Pheu Thai initially backed Move Forward as it brought together a diverse coalition of parties to support a parliamentary vote to appoint its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, as prime minister.
But with scepticism about whether conservatives would use their numbers in the unelected senate to block Pita’s appointment, speculation swirled around about how long it would be before Pheu Thai pulled the pin on Move Forward to do a deal and install one of its own MPs as head of government.
After two failed attempts at appointing Pita, Pheu Thai did exactly that, breaking ties with Move Forward and making up the numbers by reaching out to military-linked parties, accepting their support for the appointment of property tycoon and Pheu Thai MP Srettha Thavisin as prime minister.
The icing on the cake for Pheu Thai was an agreement that allowed its de facto figurehead Thaksin to return to Thailand to serve out a reduced sentence for the corruption conviction slapped on him after the 2006 coup. One Thai expert described it as a ‘hostage swap’, with Pheu Thai coming to the rescue of the electorally discredited military-backed parties in exchange for allowing Thaksin to return.
Pheu Thai has taken a big political risk. The quality of Thai opinion polling lags that of the Philippines or Indonesia, but surveys suggest that the public is cool on Pheu Thai’s alliance with the remnants of the junta government. A national survey by the National Institute of Development Administration, in the field while Pheu Thai was assembling its post-Move Forward coalition, found that almost two-thirds of respondents opposed the idea of it including junta-backed parties in its coalition.
Srettha will hope that largesse in the form of new cash transfers and subsidy programs will take voters’ minds off Pheu Thai’s offering a political lifeline to pro-junta parties despite the electorate’s clear repudiation of them at the May election. But the more it leans on such populist measures, the greater the tension with conservatives whose concerns about Pheu Thai’s cavalier approach to policy design and public finance became part of the pretext for coups against it in 2006 and 2014.
It seems likely that Srettha’s government will be marked by internal infighting over economic and social policies and the extent of its ambitions to appease pro-democracy voters with institutional reforms — and, given the fragmented 11-party parliamentary coalition underpinning it, speculation about the potential for its collapse.
On social media, commentators have been quick to draw parallels between the Thai situation and that of Malaysia, where Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim governs in coalition with the UMNO, the cornerstone of the old Barisan Nasional regime that ruled the country for decades. Anwar can endure the ire of voters disappointed by his soft-pedalling of reforms to keep this alliance stable, because his government doesn’t face any threat on its progressive flank, but rather from the racist and Islamist right.
Srettha doesn’t have that advantage. All the signs suggest that Move Forward’s resolutely pro-reform message will make it the home of voters disillusioned with Pheu Thai. Move Forward just saw a significant swing towards it in a by-election in Thailand’s deep south, historically a stronghold of the conservative Democrat Party. Having been suspended from parliament on dubious legal grounds, its thwarted prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat has resigned as party leader, allowing one of Move Forward’s other MPs to emerge as the leader of the opposition.
Thailand’s stability hinges on how the government deals with an assertive pro-democratic opposition. The appeal of the opposition, as proven in results of the May election, spans the country’s deep geographic and class divides, and looks set to increase as political competition is structured by an increasingly stark reformist-establishment divide. Indeed, one of the reasons why progressive outrage at Pheu Thai’s sell out hasn’t resulted in large-scale protests is that their disapproval can be channelled through the political system.
That only works so long as Move Forward offers that channel of protest. The anger that would greet a ban of Move Forward — the fate of its predecessor party, Future Forward — would be nothing short of explosive. The incentive to crack down on Move Forward will increase in the lead up to the constitutional expiry of the unelected Senate’s role in the appointment of a prime minister in 2024, which would give Move Forward another shot at the premiership in the event of another election or a no-confidence vote in Srettha.
What makes the situation in Thailand so deeply uncertain is that the hardline elements of the royalist–militarist elite have an occasional interest in instability if it can provide the pretext for extra-constitutional efforts to seize power. At the centre of Thailand’s tragic inability to bed down democracy is this establishment modus operandi, which resembles a racket in the classic sense of the term: creating a problem — political instability — that they are strategically positioned to ‘resolve’.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.