Thaksin Reclaims Center Stage in Thai Politics Once Again
Thai politics remain stagnant, seemingly unable to elect a new Prime Minister three months post-election. The House Speaker has announced that the next round of the Thai congressional meeting to elect the new Prime Minister will take place on August 4, 2023. Over the weekend, a series of unexpected turns occurred, starting with Chuwit's multiple appearances on TV programs where he highlighted potential cracks in the recent eight-party alliance, which includes Phue Thai, and a possible crossover to the old coalition that supported former PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha. Paethongtarn dismissed Chuwit's assertions on Facebook as nonsensical. Furthermore, the plot thickens as it seems negotiations for both a "deal" and "super deal" are taking place with Thaksin in Hong Kong.
Chuwit Kamolvisit, a provocative Thai politician once famed as the country's premier massage parlour mogul - dubbed the "tub tycoon" - has become a fixture on political commentator TV programs. He alleges that key figures from the former coalition, including the Chart Thai Pattana Party (CTP), Democrat Party (DP), and others, convened with Thaksin Shinnawatra, the former Thai PM, at the Peninsula Kowloon in Hong Kong last week. These meetings, according to Chuwit, were conducted away from the public eye, fostering clandestine political deals.
Meanwhile, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the ex-head of the Future Forward Party (FFP), now reincarnated as the Move Forward Party (MFP), has reportedly been spotted on flight logs from Thailand to Hong Kong. TV anchors suggest that he has been in discussions with Thaksin, intending to propose that the MFP withdraw from the eight-party alliance. The plan seemingly involves the MFP becoming an opposition party, agreeing to endorse any PM candidate from the Phue Thai Party (PTP), with the goal of earning the endorsement of senators currently opposed to the MFP. This agreement is, however, conditional on the new government coalition excluding both the Palang Pracharat Party (PPP) and the United Thai Nation Party (UTNP), as leaders from these two parties have direct or indirect ties to the 2014 coup d'état.
While public appearances suggest the eight-party alliance's sturdy commitment to a pact underscored by several significant reform agendas laid out in their Memorandum of Understanding, behind-the-scenes developments tell a different story. The lack of senatorial support has resulted in Pita Limjaroenrat, the current leader of the Move Forward Party (MFP), falling short in securing his premiership. Despite gaining approval from 324 members of the National Assembly, he was unable to meet the threshold of 376 votes, falling short by approximately 52 votes.
Moreover, in a subsequent vote by the national assembly, 312 members voted in favour, while 394, primarily senators, voted against, effectively rejecting a motion that would have barred him from a new bid. In recent developments, an application has been filed via the Ombudsman to seek a constitutional interpretation from the court. This move claims that the aforementioned vote may be in violation of the constitution, putting pressure on the Constitutional Court to pass a verdict before the next National Assembly meeting scheduled for this Friday, August 4, 2023.
The formation of the Thai government presents an intricate matrix of alliances. To simplify, the Thai political landscape currently features three primary factions: the reformists led by the Move Forward Party (MFP) with 151 MPs, the conservatives – a coalition of the previous government's members with 188 MPs, and the swing party, the Phue Thai Party (PTP), holding a moderate stance with 141 MPs.
This configuration significantly complicates the 'political calculus.' The first coalition, comprising the eight-party alliance, could potentially garner at most 312 MPs. The alternative conservative coalition would yield 329 MPs. Yet, irrespective of the alliance, an additional 70 votes from the pool of 250 senators are required to meet the 376 vote threshold. This complex electoral puzzle underscores the fraught negotiations and strategic manoeuvres necessary for any faction to form a government.
The Phue Thai Party (PTP), recently sanctioned by the eight-party alliance to lead the formation of a new government, now faces four potential routes:
Option 1: Persist with the eight-party alliance, amassing 312 MPs, and await the expiry of the temporary constitutional clause governing the rights of the Senate, a process that could take at least 10 months. This path risks heightening political tensions and causing paralysis in key subsidy programs designed to assist the poor. These initiatives require a new, fully-fledged government rather than a caretaker administration, which is limited to managing regular budgetary commitments such as personnel expenses and other obligatory costs.
Option 2: Maintain the eight-party alliance while courting factions from the former government coalition. The Bhumjai Thai Party (BJT), with its 70 MPs, presents a feasible target that could help tip the senatorial vote and surpass the 376 threshold. This appears to be the most likely path to forming a new government, assuming that the MFP is willing to abandon its controversial amendment of Article 112, the lese majeste law. In return, the BJT would seek to control both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Transportation - its previous cabinet posts. While this coalition of 382 MPs would secure the necessary majority, it could come at a significant cost, potentially causing fractures within the PTP itself.
Option 3: The former government coalition suggests an alternative path - a "temporary" minority government, banking on endorsement from the Senate to surpass the threshold. This scenario would see either General Prawit Wongsuwan of the Palang Pracharat Party (PPP) or Anutin Charnvirakul of the Bhumjai Thai Party (BJT) as the new Prime Minister. The strategy involves first establishing a new PM. Then, to bypass censure debates or votes on the Annual Appropriations Bill, both of which require majority approval, this 'temporary' minority government would need to resort to less-than-transparent tactics. It would need to entice MPs from the eight-party coalition to defect – likely driven by covert incentives – and join the minority government, thereby achieving a majority. However, given the requirement for around 70-80 MPs to defect, this strategy carries a hefty cost. It also threatens to exacerbate political tension, potentially leading to large-scale protests, making this an unlikely choice.
The final option: The PTP might consider aligning with the former government coalition to form a new administration. Given that the imminent motion pertains to the election of the Prime Minister rather than the coalition, a PM candidate from PTP, possibly Srettha Thavisin, could exploit the party's ambiguous stance to secure support from both the eight-party alliance and the former government coalition. The 'real' formation of the government would then be addressed once the PM's position is secure, placing negotiating power firmly in PTP's hands, rather than with the MFP or other parties from the former government coalition. However, it's important to acknowledge the escalating political pressure from intellectuals and middle-class citizens who support the eight-party alliance. They insist that 1) the PTP must respect the people's mandate by endorsing the "democratic force" to form the new government, suggesting that PTP should remain within the eight-party alliance and 2) the PTP must honour the 'red shirts' who have made significant sacrifices over the past 17 years, including during two coups. They argue that the PTP cannot betray the 'red shirts' by switching alliances to partner with the autocratic former government coalition, which supports General Prayut Chan-o-Cha, both the caretaker PM and the leader of the coup.
Difficult Political Calculus
Option 2 appears to be the most likely scenario, yet Option 4, despite potential resistance from the MFP supporters, may be a more feasible path in realpolitik terms. The crucial factor isn't necessarily about accepting endorsements from the senators or achieving national reconciliation through a "unity government". The political landscape, as it currently stands, positions the MFP - the lead party in this election - and the PTP - the second leading party - as perfect competitors, setting the stage for a delicate calculus in the upcoming round of elections.
The PTP faces a tough decision. Should it align with the MFP, it risks losing more popularity than the MFP and attracting attacks from the conservatives. On the other hand, siding with the former government coalition could neutralize attacks from the conservatives and possibly allow it to gain more popularity through policies similar to those of its predecessor, the Thai Rak Thai's populist policy. This complex trade-off underscores the nuanced strategy the PTP must navigate to retain its political foothold.
The Thaksin factor adds another layer of complexity to the situation. As we've observed, Thaksin has emerged as a significant political figure and key negotiator, given the travel of numerous influential Thai politicians to Hong Kong last week. However, Thaksin's manoeuvres are not confined to this single deal. He may well be orchestrating a "super deal" with the conservatives. Given that the conservatives now perceive the MFP as a more pressing threat than Thaksin and the PTP, they could potentially strike a temporary alliance with Thaksin and PTP to weaken the MFP's influence.
Thaksin has previously shown his readiness to forge such deals to bolster his influence. This was evident when it's a known rumor that he proposed, through the now-disbanded Thai Raksa Chart Party, a nomination for Ubol Ratana - the elder sister of the King - to run for Prime Minister. Her candidacy was swiftly vetoed by her brother, King Rama X, citing the prohibition on members of the royal family participating overtly in politics.
The rumour mill suggests that Thaksin might be negotiating a deal allowing for his potential return to Thailand, a term of imprisonment, and an eventual royal pardon. However, as we've observed from the unsuccessful proposal involving Ubon Ratana, it's one thing to propose a deal, and quite another to enforce it. The execution of such agreements is often fraught with uncertainty, in stark contrast to more predictable custodial arrangements. A so-called "super deal" demands a reliable custodian, but in this situation, leaked news regarding the disciplining of General Apirat Kongsompong, former Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army and recent Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household Bureau and Deputy Director of the Crown Property Bureau, is indicative of the complexities involved. The rationale given for this disciplinary action was a failure to fulfil royal duties.
The power to grant a royal pardon lies solely with the King, but traditionally, His Majesty will seek counsel before making a final decision. The interplay between royal prerogative and political manoeuvring remains an uncertain aspect of Thai politics.