Coalition Tensions Threaten Democratic Transformations In Thailand

Thailand’s new parliament convened on July 3rd after the progressive opposition Move Forward Party’s shocking election victory. The question of whether party leader Pita Limjaroenrat can really take power and become prime minister, ending nine years of military rule, remains in the air.

Pita, a 42-year-old Harvard graduate and businessman, stunned Thailand and its existing rulers with his win. His campaign promises to transform many powerful political institutions, including the influencing monarchy and the military, resonated with a majority of the Thai public, which has been living under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s strict military control. (Prayuth gained power in a 2014 coup and was re-elected as Prime Minister in 2019.)

Members of the conservative-leading Senate, wary of how these promises may affect the ruling monarchy, have already been hinting at confronting Pita with legal challenges regarding his shares in a media company, which would be unconstitutional for him as a candidate. Although Pita has explained that the shares are part of his father’s estate, and are not in his own name, he could still potentially be banned from politics and face jail time for this minor violation.

Despite this concern, Pita’s progressive game plan is clear. Now, the worry is how the rising tension between Move Forward and its largest coalition partner, the Pheu Thai Party, will affect the polls.

Pheu Thai, also a democratic-leaning party, has had victory in all national elections until this one, which was held in May. Move Forward and Pheu Thai have been debating over who will receive the post of speaker of the House of Representatives.

“The position of House Speaker is essential because he will determine the agenda of parliament, and so, therefore, the degree of political transformation,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, a Thai studies student at the University of Wisconsin.

The dispute between the parties may harm Pita’s chances at the prime ministerial seat. The coalition’s allies must be united to support Pita’s campaign – Pita needs to reach 376 votes to win the post, and he is currently at 312. The remaining 64 votes will need to come from rival parties or conservative Senate members. But Pheu Thai has a tightrope to walk between ceding too much ground to its Move Forward partners and being seen as a weak ally.

“The feelings of people in the Pheu Thai Party, that it used to be a heavyweight that had won many elections and was able to be an agenda setter” drove many to insist that Move Forward should give the speaker’s post to Pheu Thai, Attachak Sattayanurak, a history professor at Chiang Mai University, explained. But if Pheu Tai does not show an unbreakable bond with Move Forward, it “reduces the power of the group that calls itself a democracy bloc” and will give senators “more grounds not to choose Pita,” Attachak said.

After meeting on the 3rd, the two parties came to a compromise, declaring that the coalition will nominate Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, a veteran leader of the Prachachat Party, as House Speaker. Move Forward and Pheu Thai will each have one deputy speaker. Pita explained that this decision was reached amicably to unite the coalition behind his campaign.

Beyond concerns over the two parties’ tensions, there are rising worries that Pita and his party will be confronted with legal challenges. Pita is being accused of holding shares in a media company, which is a constitutional violation. Although he has claimed that the shares are part of his father’s estate and are not in his name, Pita could still be banned from politics and potentially face jail time for this minor violation.

The outcome of the prime ministerial race will rely on Move Forward and Pheu Thai’s ability to reconcile with peace and honesty. The progressive political future Pita offers for his historically conservative, military-dominated country could be monumental.