Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaronenrat failed in his bid to become prime minister. A second round of voting will take place on Jul 19 but there’s no guarantee Thailand will get out of its political limbo.

Thailand’s parliament convened on Thursday (Jul 13) for a crucial session to select the country’s next prime minister. Pre-vote machinations pointed to an unlikely victory for opposition leader Pita Limjaroenrat, whose Move Forward Party had emerged as the largest party in parliament after the May general election. 

To Mr Pita’s bitter disappointment, voting played out almost exactly as his naysayers had predicted, falling 51 votes short of the 375-vote threshold needed to clinch the prime ministerial post. 

Prior to the vote, Mr Pita had spoken optimistically about Move Forward’s efforts to court members of the 250-seat conservative-leaning Senate, whose support is critical to his bid. His lower house coalition only has 311 votes (excluding the speaker, who abstains by parliamentary tradition). 

Only 13 senators backed him; the rest chose to either abstain from voting, reject him or simply not show up. Many oppose the Move Forward Party’s pledge to amend the lese-majeste law, which makes it illegal to criticise the monarch, his immediate family or the royal institution.

The Thai parliament will vote again on Jul 19. But there is no guarantee a prime minister will be elected, more than two months after the general election.

Political and business limbo

This delay will deepen the wounds inflicted on business and investor confidence by the ongoing political crisis. Companies have started deferring new investments as they await clarity on what the next government will look like. 

The protracted post-election transition will undermine Thailand’s economic growth this year (forecast at 2.7 per cent to 3.7 per cent), which is already lagging behind some regional peers and largely propped up by a tourism rebound. 

Yet even the gains in the tourism sector could dissipate quickly if the political quagmire triggers large-scale civil unrest – a scenario which now grows more likely after Mr Pita’s first failed prime ministerial bid. 

Investors seeking supply chain diversification options or new opportunities in growth sectors like electric vehicles, renewable energy and the digital economy will not wait forever for Thailand to get its act together. Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines are competing fiercely with Thailand for new foreign direct investment in these areas to drive economic transformation.

A new strategy for the opposition? 

With the focus now on a second round of voting on Jul 19, is the outcome likely to be any different? Not if the opposition sticks with the same strategy. 

Mr Pita wants to run again, while Move Forward’s key coalition partner, Pheu Thai, has pledged to back him. Mr Pita has promised to work harder to court the senators but they will not budge unless he agrees to drop the lese-majeste reform pledge - an unlikely concession as he and his party would lose credibility among their supporters.

Whether the opposition fares differently in the second round will depend on two possible scenarios. 

The first is if Mr Pita agrees to give up his candidacy in favour of someone from Pheu Thai, either property tycoon Srettha Thavisin or - less likely - former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s youngest daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra. Mr Srettha in particular is likely to be more palatable to the conservatives and could attract sufficient votes to land the prime ministerial post. 

But Mr Pita has made no intention to surrender his candidacy, though he could agree if Pheu Thai allocates a larger share of Cabinet positions to Move Forward that would strengthen their influence over legislative matters. However, if Pheu Thai refuses to advance the lese-majeste reform (and it is currently not inclined to), Move Forward could decide to remain in the opposition instead of joining Pheu Thai in government. 

The second is if the Constitutional Court decides to disqualify Mr Pita from the second round based on alleged violations of electoral laws. This would effectively force the opposition to nominate someone else or risk being out-manoeuvred by an incumbent coalition leader. 

Arguably, this outcome would also simplify the intra-opposition bargaining process by taking Mr Pita out of the picture, paving the way for Pheu Thai to lead in forming the government. Pheu Thai will work hard to keep Move Forward on board but once again, the sticking point will be the lese-majeste reform. This will likely result in a Pheu Thai-led coalition with conservative parties, with Move Forward in the opposition.

A return to may 2014 and military intervention?

Of course, it is entirely plausible that none of these developments will transpire, and everyone sticks to their original scripts next week. 

Mr Pita may not give way to Pheu Thai; Pheu Thai may fear breaking away from Move Forward at the risk of losing credibility with progressive voters; the Constitutional Court may not want to risk sustained demonstrations and violence in Bangkok by taking the nuclear options of removing Mr Pita or dissolving the Move Forward Party – which happened to the party’s predecessor Future Forward Party in early 2020.

This scenario would not only prolong the political limbo but tip Thailand towards a situation where unrest becomes more disruptive and overt military intervention becomes increasingly likely. A return to May 2014 may be around the corner.

This article was originally published in CNA on 15 July 2023.

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