opposition forms new coalition in thailand after election

Thais voted overwhelmingly for change on Sunday, but the military-appointed Senate could still block the opposition’s nomination for prime minister.

The two opposition parties that won the largest share of the vote in Thailand’s general election over the weekend said on Monday that they had agreed to form a coalition government. It remained unclear, however, whether the ruling junta would hand over power easily.

The results of the election were a stinging rebuke to the country’s military leaders, who have governed Thailand since seizing power in a coup in 2014. Although Thailand is a nation where coups are not uncommon, it had never been under military rule for so long.

Many voters, disillusioned with the never-ending cycle of putsches and protests, used the election on Sunday to demonstrate overwhelmingly that they wanted change.

“People have been through enough of a lost decade,” Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the progressive Move Forward Party, told reporters on Monday. “Today is a new day.”

The Move Forward Party — which has called for an overhaul of the military and amending a strict law that criminalizes criticism of the Thai monarchy — secured 151 seats out of the 500-member House of Representatives. The result defied opinion polls, which had predicted a strong victory for Pheu Thai, the country’s largest opposition party, founded by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Pheu Thai won 141 seats, which, like Move Forward, was short of a clear majority. The two parties announced during separate news conferences on Monday that they had agreed to work together to form a government.

Mr. Pita has led the effort to build the coalition. He said that five parties, including Pheu Thai, had already joined him, boosting the opposition’s control over Parliament to 309 out of 500 seats. “It’s safe to assume that we have secured a majority in forming a government,” Mr. Pita said on Monday.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who seized power in the 2014 coup, said on Sunday that he “has respect for the democratic process and the election results.” His party, United Thai Nation, won only 36 seats.

Prayut Chan-ocha, Thailand’s current prime minister and the United Thai Nation Party’s candidate, said he “has respect for the democratic process and the election results.”Lillian Suwanrumpha/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Pita’s quick work in assembling a coalition lowered some uncertainty around what many Thais have described as the most consequential election of their lifetimes. But it was still unclear if he would be allowed to lead the country as prime minister.

The military-appointed Senate, which has the power to select the prime minister through a joint vote in parliament, may still block Mr. Pita from the position.

Many analysts questioned whether the Senate would tolerate any election results that threaten the status quo. Move Forward has targeted institutions and policies once considered sacrosanct in Thai society, including abolishing mandatory military conscription and reducing the punishments for the law that protects the monarchy from criticism.

With Pheu Thai in government, it could effectively place the party’s founder and one of the military’s top rivals, Mr. Thaksin, back at the center of the country’s politics. The king must also endorse the appointment of prime minister.

At a news conference, Mr. Pita said he was not concerned about opposition from the Senate. “With the consensus that came out of the election, it would be quite a hefty price to pay for someone who’s thinking of abolishing the election results or forming a minority government,” he said. “And I don’t think the people of Thailand would allow that to happen.”

But if history is any indicator, the military, which has dominated Thai politics for decades, is unlikely to relinquish power quickly. In addition to engineering a dozen coups within a century, Thai generals rewrote the Constitution in 2017 to stack the Senate with allies and ensure that the military would have the power to determine the country’s prime minister.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra and Srettha Thavisin, Pheu Thai Party candidates for prime minister, after a news conference on Monday. Their party opted to form a coalition with the Move Forward Party.Lauren Decicca/Getty Images

Gregory Raymond, a lecturer researching Southeast Asian politics at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, said there was still a possibility that the two military proxy parties — United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharath — could cobble together enough seats to mount their own claim to government. “That is still, in my mind, the last scenario. It would be highly undemocratic but can’t be ruled out at this point,” Mr. Raymond said.

Analysts warned that the Senate choosing to block Mr. Pita’s appointment would likely galvanize protests in Thailand, plunging the country into more political turmoil.

“I think the reaction will be much more dangerous than four years ago,” said Purawich Watanasukh, a research fellow at King Prajadhipok’s Institute in Thailand, referring to the nation’s previous election. “Right now, many people have Pita as their new prime minister in their minds. If Pita cannot be prime minister and Move Forward cannot form the government, it will break the people’s hearts. And it will be very, very bad.”

In 2020, the country’s Constitutional Court disbanded the Future Forward Party, the previous iteration of the Move Forward Party, after the election. Tens of thousand of Thais took to the streets of Bangkok to protest the decision.

What started out as a protest for democratic reforms quickly grew into a pro-democracy movement calling for checks on the Thai monarchy, a subject that was once considered taboo.

The country’s conservatives are likely to step up their campaigns to block the rise of Move Forward in the coming days. Last week, a conservative candidate petitioned the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate Mr. Pita for failing to disclose that he owned shares of a now-defunct media company that he had inherited from his father. By law, no candidates running for Member of Parliament are allowed to hold shares in a media firm.

Mr. Pita brushed off the petition, saying he had already reported the shares to the authorities.

But Move Forward will need to manage many competing interests to keep the coalition intact. It was the only large party that pushed to amend a law criminalizing criticism of the monarchy, arguing that the law had been weaponized by royalists to persecute protesters who participated in pro-democracy demonstrations.

Anti-government protesters clashing with riot police in Bangkok in 2020.Adam Dean for The New York Times

On Sunday night, Mr. Pita said he was still going to press ahead with amending the royal protection law.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of Mr. Thaksin and a Pheu Thai candidate for prime minister, said on Monday that she was “ready to discuss” the issue of young people being charged with violating the law, known as Article 112. But she added that her party would not vote to get rid of the law altogether.

“We will have to tell Move Forward Party that we do not support the abolishment of Article 112,” she said.

Pirada Anuwech contributed reporting.

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