Thailand’s king opened the new session of parliament Monday as the kingdom enters a crucial fortnight to decide if the big winners of the May election, the Move Forward Party, can form a pro-democracy coalition government or if new political turmoil lies ahead.
Move Forward took 151 seats in a shocking May 14 election victory, as millions of Thais swung behind their agenda of removing the army from politics, tackling the economic dominance of monopolies and amending the royal defamation law, which protects the monarchy from criticism.
But the party’s agenda is seen as dangerously radical by many in the conservative royalist establishment, including caretaker Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army general who led a 2014 coup and ran the country for nearly a decade until his party was soundly beaten in the polls.
All 750 members of the two chambers— the 250 senators appointed by Prayuth’s military-dominated government and the 500 elected lawmakers — stood in neat lines in white civil servant uniforms in front of King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Monday as he inaugurated parliament.
Among them was Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party, who says he has the popular mandate to be the next prime minister, albeit at the head of a shaky pro-democracy coalition.
“For unity we must compromise and sacrifice in order to reach a more important goal that is forwarding myself as the next premier,” he told reporters late Monday.
First, the 42-year-old Pita must gain a majority of 376 in a vote for the premiership of both houses, to be held within two weeks.
His pro-democracy, eight-party coalition has 311 votes so far, including 141 from Pheu Thai, the party of the Shinawatra political clan, which was the flag carrier of Thailand’s democracy cause, until the stunning poll result knocked them into second place.
Yet the Senate is unlikely to back Move Forward’s candidate for premier, mainly for his stance on reforming the royal defamation law, leaving Pita potentially dozens of votes short.
“Our job is to vote for the right candidate who’s able to form a government that would not lead the country towards violence,” Senator Somchai Sawangkarn told VOA.
“Any candidate who wants to touch the monarchy— I will 100 percent not vote for,” he added.
If Pita’s progress is blocked, Pheu Thai leaders are expected to nominate a candidate more likely to pass the threshold of 376 to become premier.
That candidate could be Srettha Thavisin, a property mogul who advises Pheu Thai, or Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the 36-year-old daughter of family patriarch and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Pheu Thai and its former parties were taken out of government by coups in 2006 and 2014. Yet after Move Forward’s emergence, it is potentially more acceptable to the Senate and other conservative parties.
Pheu Thai does not support reforming the royal defamation law and has a slate of old-style handout policies to the poor, but steps back from calls to reform the entire power structure of the country.
Conservative candidates likely to vie for the premiership include Prayuth, fellow former General Prawit Wongsuwon and Anutin Charnvirakul, a billionaire royalist who liberalized Thailand’s cannabis laws.
The fact that unelected senators are essential to forming a government “shows the problem of Thai democracy,” said Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a constitutional scholar at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
He said the “change” moment represented by the May election is being held back by the constitution written specifically by the army and its allies for this purpose.
Thailand has been hit by repeated rounds of violent street protests involving rival political factions over the last two decades.
Move Forward’s predecessor, the Future Forward Party, was dissolved by a court ruling after a 2019 election saw it soak up millions of youth votes.
That prompted more then 18 months of major rallies which targeted Prayuth’s government — but for the first time in Thai history also openly called out the role of the powerful monarchy, which the army supports.
Scores of young protesters have been charged with defaming the monarchy since then.
Pita’s fate is also clouded by several legal cases brought within days of his stunning poll win by royalist petitioners.
The most serious could see him banned from politics and jailed over an alleged illegal share in a media company. Thai politicians are prohibited from holding such financial assets in media organizations.
Khemthong warned that defying the popular vote or Move Forward’s victory after nine years of army-backed government could push Thailand down a dangerous path.
In the six weeks since the election, Move Forward and Pheu Thai have squabbled over which party’s candidate should get the post of House Speaker, a key position which sets the parliamentary agenda.
Ahead of the Tuesday vote for the speaker’s job, the parties appeared to break the deadlock.
They agreed to nominate veteran politician Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, 79, from the Prachachat Party — which is a member of the eight-party coalition — as a compromise candidate for speaker.