According to most Thai news sources, it was widely believed that the prime minister’s seat would be assumed by Prawit Wongsuwan, the former deputy prime minister, leader of the Palang Pracharat Party and a key figure behind numerous clandestine political deals. Rumours were rife about whether there was a special deal between the monarchy and the autocrats.
Three months after election day, the covert political warfare between Thailand’s populist Pheu Thai Party, the alliance of conservative political parties including Palang Pracharat, and the military-appointed senators finally came to light and undermined Prawit’s shot at power.
On 22 August, Thailand witnessed two significant political events. First, Srettha Thavisin, a real estate magnate from the Pheu Thai Party, was appointed Prime Minister. Second, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who had been in exile for 15 years and was the influential force behind the Pheu Thai Party, returned to Thailand. When he emerged from the terminal, he paid homage to the portraits of the Thai King and Queen, and then greeted his supporters.
Immediately afterwards, corrections officials escorted Thaksin to jail. Thaksin submitted a request for a royal pardon on 31 August and King Maha Vajiralongkorn granted it the next day, reducing Thaksin’s jail time from eight years to just one.
The Thai people, once deeply polarised between pro-democracy red shirts and pro-royalist yellow shirts, now find themselves baffled by the unusual alliance forming the new governing coalition. The red shirts, who are anti-military rule, pro-democracy and opposed to the royalist conservatives, support the Pheu Thai Party.
The yellow shirts, who despise Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies, are strongly against those who they believe want to abolish the monarchy by amending the lese-majeste law and support pro-military parties like Palang Pracharat Party and the United Thai Nations Party. But the new alliance between these two opposing political camps has led many Thais who once staunchly supported their ideological camps to question where their loyalties lie.
As the dust settles in Thailand, the extent of the post-election political manoeuvring has come to light. The new cabinet ministers, now royally endorsed, include familiar faces from General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s previous government and members once labelled as ‘pro-democracy’ from the Pheu Thai and Prachachat parties. The new alliance has also seen several inexperienced ministers appointed to high-level cabinet positions.
The political divisions within Thailand can now broadly be categorised into three distinct groups. The first group consists of those who steadfastly support their leaders and whatever they do. The second group comprises staunch supporters of their political camp, who have become disillusioned by their leaders’ alliances with the opposite camp. Phumtham Wechayachai, the Pheu Thai Party deputy leader, spearheaded the unusual alliance, saying that all Thais needed to swallow their pride ‘in order for the country to move on’.
The third group includes those who supported the Move Forward Party. These people were disillusioned from the beginning because, though their party won the most seats in the election, it did not form government. This third group has continued to support the Move Forward Party, which now serves as the opposition.
With the governing coalition formed and ministers appointed, Thailand is looking at what the future holds for Thai people and politics. Staunch supporters of Thaksin remain defenders of the Pheu Thai Party, even going so far as to now protect political figures from the pro-royalist camp. Those disillusioned by the Pheu Thai Party will likely shift their support to the Move Forward Party in the upcoming election, given their shared pro-democracy ideology. But those in the pro-royalist conservative camp, who felt betrayed because their leaders and the monarchy supported Thaksin’s return, will likely remain loyal to their political camp. Their ideologies are too conservative to align with the Move Forward Party. Pro-royalist conservatives will likely continue to search for loopholes to undermine Thaksin and Pheu Thai.
While the conservatives and Thaksin’s camp may be aligned at present, mutual trust is lacking. Their alliance remains fragile and could suddenly disintegrate at any moment. The military remains a key cleavage. Even though the Pheu Thai Party’s campaign rested on an anti-military stance, Prime Minister Srettha and Minister of Defence Sutin Klungsang are, now in government, ostensibly intent on supporting the military’s interests. Pandering to the directives of the Thai military is most likely an effort to prevent another coup.
The past four months of political tumult have shown that Thai citizens have little influence over their nation’s affairs. The formation of the coalition, the government’s alignment with the military, the political arrangement between autocrats and the monarchy and the swift return and subsequent release of Thaksin, have revealed that the interests of the Thai people have never been a top priority. To the autocrats and the monarchy, what matters most is the preservation of their power.
Daungyewa Utarasint is Visiting Assistant Professor at New York University Abu Dhabi.