After months of political deadlock, Thailand has a new prime minister. But Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin will have to navigate the consequences of its political alliances and former leader Thaksin Shinawatra’s return, says Control Risks’ Harrison Cheng.
A casual observer of Thai politics who had slept through the past 15 years and awakened to news on Tuesday (Aug 22) that Pheu Thai party’s Srettha Thavisin will be its next prime minister might have quickly surmised that nothing had changed.
Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is in Bangkok, with enthusiastic crowds of loyal supporters cheering him on. The party he founded helms the government.
But that observer would have been seriously mistaken. The parallels between Thaksin’s first homecoming in February 2008 (following his ouster in a military coup in 2006) and his second on Tuesday end there.
Thaksin was whisked off to jail for criminal convictions passed in his absences. Pheu Thai will indeed lead the new government but the political price it paid to get there was hefty.
Senate support not for free
On Tuesday, Mr Srettha won the backing of the Thai parliament to become prime minister, something that had eluded Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party (MFP).
Mr Srettha received 482 votes, far exceeding the required 375 votes. Mr Pita managed only 324 votes in the first round of voting in July, despite his party winning the largest number of seats in the May general election.
What made all the difference was how the 250-seat military-controlled Senate voted this time. While an overwhelming 95 per cent of senators effectively blocked Mr Pita’s bid, nearly two-thirds of them voted for Mr Srettha.
But the Senate’s support does not come for free. Pheu Thai counted the cost and was ultimately willing to pay it to secure its claim to power.
It jettisoned the Move Forward Party and its controversial plans to amend the lese-majeste law and instead integrated into its coalition the two pro-military parties - Palang Pracharath (PPRP) and outgoing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s United Thai Nation (UTN). This has fuelled speculation of a deal to facilitate Thaksin’s return from exile.
The price of power for Pheu Thai
Although Mr Srettha is known to have an independent mind and not overtly beholden to political overlords, he might not be able to impose his agenda on politics and policy in the next four years.
For one, Pheu Thai leads the government in name but has a numerical disadvantage compared to conservative partners in the new coalition. Pheu Thai has 141 lower house seats, while the Bhumjaithai Party, the PPRP, the UTN and the Chartthaipattana Party have a combined 157 seats.
Pheu Thai will necessarily require their support for any legislative bills it wants to table. Having burned the bridge with the MFP, Pheu Thai can hardly hope for their support except in very specific legislative items where both have shared interests, such as the abolishment of military conscription.
Mr Srettha’s ability to influence politics and policy will also depend on how Cabinet positions end up being distributed among the coalition partners.
Having squandered the goodwill of progressive voters by ditching the MFP and reneging on a promise not to ally with military-backed parties, Pheu Thai knows that economic revival is the only credible path to recovering its political capital.
As such, Pheu Thai will likely lay claim to the finance, commerce, energy and industry portfolios – and the agriculture and cooperatives ministry to advance rural policies that benefit its core support base in the north and northeastern regions.
To show appreciation to Bhumjaithai, the first conservative-leaning party to join its coalition, Pheu Thai is likely to accede to its claim on at least two premium portfolios: Transport and public health.
In a bid to keep the peace with the conservative bloc and mitigate the risk of a fresh military coup, Pheu Thai may cede the defence and interior ministries to UTN and allow PPRP to keep the digital economy and society and the education portfolios. The pro-military parties will need to demonstrate to conservative backers that Pheu Thai will not be allowed to run roughshod over military and royal prerogatives, the way its predecessors allegedly did in the 2000s under Thaksin.
A crucial portfolio to watch is the justice ministry which oversees the criminal justice system, the powerful Department of Special Investigation and the Department of Corrections, which is responsible for keeping prisoners in custody.
Pheu Thai will want to ensure that Thaksin is kept safe and gets the necessary medical treatment while serving his sentence, and to deter political rivals from opening new cases that could end up extending his eight-year jail term.
On the other hand, the conservatives likely suspect that Pheu Thai could be tempted to meddle in the justice system to shorten Thaksin’s sentence and pave a way for his political rehabilitation.
All things considered, this is unlikely – at least in the next few months.
Pheu Thai will want to focus on consolidating power amid considerable public disenchantment. Mr Srettha will almost certainly come under pressure to do something to help Thaksin, but he may seek to dissuade and placate them through other means to preserve his job.
Deal or no deal, nobody should rule out Thaksin reasserting himself as a nexus of political power akin to the days of old. He has shown his enduring influence in Pheu Thai and the strength of his family’s personal brand.
Once the present economic travails subside, Pheu Thai might conceivably explore options to revive Thaksin’s clout. Pheu Thai will likely need it to combat public support for the MFP as a genuinely democratic force ahead of the 2028 election and Thaksin will be motivated to secure a bright political future for his daughter Paetongtarn.
Any misstep could still give the conservatives and the military a convenient pretext to call an abrupt end to this strange and unprecedented partnership.
This article was originally published in CNA on 24 August 2023.