Thailand’s parliament convened on Wednesday (Jul 19) to accomplish what it failed to do last week: Pick a new prime minister and take the country forward after more than two months of political manoeuvring following the May 14 general election. It failed again.
It was supposed to be Move Forward Party (MFP) leader Pita Limjaroenrat’s second and final bid for the prime ministerial post, after his failed first attempt on Jul 13. By the time the session wrapped up, however, Mr Pita left the chamber without even getting a second shot.
Senators and conservative lawmakers delayed the vote by vigorously challenging Mr Pita’s re-nomination, on the grounds that a prime ministerial nomination counts as a parliamentary motion, which cannot be resubmitted if it had failed during the same session. Seven hours later, his re-nomination was voided in a separate vote.
But Mr Pita’s departure was not incidental or borne out of frustration that military-selected senators and lawmakers from parties trounced by MFP in May could block his path to victory.
He left, due to the impeccable timing on the same day by a Constitutional Court decision to immediately suspend him from duty as a member of parliament (MP) over an alleged violation of election rules.
The Thai parliament will vote again on Jul 27. But conservative resistance to MFP being part of the next government will continue to cast a cloud over the chances of a new prime minister emerging by then.
Not necessarily end of the road for Pita
Mr Pita’s unceremonious ousting from parliament suggests that he is unlikely eligible to be elected as prime minister during this parliamentary session.
His suspension as an MP does not in itself bar him from running again next week, because the constitution does not require a prime ministerial candidate to be an MP. However, senators and conservative lawmakers succeeded in foisting their interpretation of what counts as a parliamentary motion over the constitution, which does not specify any limit on the number of times a candidate can be nominated for the prime ministerial post.
This has likely set a precedent, which will be fiercely defended by conservative elites and institutions, and will probably be weaponised to terminate the ambitions of other prime ministerial aspirants.
Nevertheless, Mr Pita is expected to continue playing a key role in politics, whether formally as an MP and party leader or in the background like Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who led the MFP’s predecessor party Future Forward before it was dissolved in 2020.
If the MFP manages to elude Future Forward’s fate - which carried a 10-year ban from politics for its executives - Mr Pita’s star may shine again as soon as next year. The term of the current military-selected senators will end in May 2024, and so will their power to join the lower house in selecting the prime minister.
Time for Pheu Thai to shine?
All eyes are now on coalition partner Pheu Thai to nominate a candidate for the next vote on Jul 27. Mr Pita previously said that if he failed to secure substantially more votes on Jul 19 than before, he would allow Pheu Thai to take the lead in forming the government.
It will be down to property tycoon Srettha Thavisin or former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s youngest daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra.
However, neither candidacy guarantees a path to victory for Pheu Thai, or indeed for the opposition as a whole. The conservative bloc will almost surely demand that the MFP be dropped from any coalition government in exchange for backing Pheu Thai’s candidate, even if the MFP agrees to back off from its lese-majeste reform pledge.
If the MFP is kicked to the kerb, the only conceivable way for Pheu Thai to form a majority government is by working with parties from the incumbent ruling coalition. The Constitutional Court may well dissolve the MFP to force Pheu Thai into a corner.
Ultimately, Pheu Thai is likely to collaborate with the incumbent coalition parties, hoping that the powers of incumbency and the MFP’s dissolution will give it a clear advantage over alternative pro-democracy parties in the next election, due by 2027.
Alternatively, Thailand could end up with a minority government comprising incumbent coalition parties if Pheu Thai doggedly refuses to work with them for the sake of optics for progressive voters.
Senators could do the incumbent coalition a final favour before ending their term in May 2024 by backing caretaker deputy premier and former coup conspirator Prawit Wongsuwan as the new prime minister.
It would be unwise to underestimate the longevity of Mr Prawit’s government. The same institutions that wrecked Mr Pita’s bid in the past two weeks, coupled with defections and other extra-parliamentary measures, could artificially prolong the minority government’s shelf life for years to come.
Foreign investors and businesses will hardly be enthused. With parliament being a veritable minefield due to the risk of no-confidence motions, legislative activity will be sidelined in favour of executive decisions on policymaking.
Businesses should expect slower reforms - often devised opaquely and without meaningful consultation with the private sector - and a dearth of fresh ideas to innovate investment policies and spearhead economic liberalisation of sectors, especially those that are dominated by politically connected conglomerates.
Thai voters may have rejected years of military rule but it may be a political void, rather than change, that awaits.
This article was originally published in CNA on 21 July 2023.