Thailand slipped deeper into political crisis on Thursday as the latest vote for a prime minister was postponed, leaving the kingdom without a new leader or new government, a day after the election-winning Move Forward Party was dumped from its own coalition, sparking accusations of betrayal.
The vote was to have taken place on Friday, Aug. 4.
The political uncertainty comes three months after Move Forward Party, or MFP, won the most seats in elections, which saw the public decisively reject the military-aligned government of former general Prayuth Chan-ocha.
More than 14 million Thais voted for MFP and its radical agenda to cut the military from power, break up a monopoly on the economy and amend the royal defamation law, which criminalizes criticism of the powerful monarchy.
But the party has rattled the royalist establishment, which has blocked its bid for power.
In mid-July, Move Forward’s prime ministerial candidate, Pita Limjaroenrat, was voted down in parliament by the military-appointed Senate and later denied the chance of another vote.
That opened the way for second-place party, Pheu Thai, the once-unbeatable political machine of self-exiled ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to put forward a candidate for premier despite its poorest electoral performance in its history.
Pheu Thai said Wednesday it would lead a coalition without Move Forward, which is increasingly friendless among the older powers that dominate Thai politics.
That has raised fears the once stalwart pro-democracy Pheu Thai — whose “Red Shirt” supporters have died by the scores to defend Shinawatra governments — will now align with the same conservative parties that have run the country for nine years.
“That will be crossing the line,” Teerachai Rawiwat, 25, a former Pheu Thai member, told VOA, saying he has quit the party in disgust at the split with MFP. “How am I supposed to look into the eyes of the Red Shirt people who voted for us if we’re joining hands with the very people who have hurt them?”
On Thursday, Pita broke his silence on the parting with Pheu Thai, which effectively pushes MFP, Thailand’s largest party, into opposition.
“No disappointment, only power,” he wrote on Instagram.
New charter, new election?
A joint sitting of parliament was scheduled to vote Friday on a bid by Srettha Thavisin, the former property tycoon who is now fronting Pheu Thai, to be prime minister.
But the vote was abruptly postponed after Thailand’s top court said it needed more time to consider a petition by Move Forward. MFP contends that Pita has been unfairly prevented from trying to win the premiership in a second vote.
The Constitutional Court next meets on Aug. 16.
The delay means Pheu Thai’s bid to make a government with Srettha at the helm has been put on hold.
It may also jeopardize the return of the billionaire Thaksin to Thailand after 15 years as a fugitive overseas. His daughter, Paetongtarn, recently said he would return Aug. 10 to face justice over corruption charges.
As soon as Pheu Thai announced its split with MFP, dozens of protesters arrived at its Bangkok headquarters in an angry demonstration against the perceived betrayal of the democracy bloc.
To head off the outcry of a public that voted for change, Pheu Thai said it will drive through most of Move Forward’s policies if it can form a government.
Those include a marriage equality act, ending the monopoly of the economy and reforming the police and army. But the party does not back reform of the royal defamation law.
Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew also said the party will push to rewrite the constitution, which gives wide veto powers to the army-appointed Senate.
“We will push for the problematic constitution — the one that is causing us all troubles in forming the government this time — to be amended as a national agenda,” he told reporters. “We will return the power to the people with a new election as soon as we have a new constitution.”
The party hopes it will sway some senators to back Srettha once a vote for prime minister is held.
But the split with Move Forward has the potential to backfire on Pheu Thai, experts warn, especially if it enters a coalition with the parties from the former government, including Bhumjaithai and Palang Pracharath.
Palang Pracharath is headed by ex-general Prawit Wongsuwon, the notorious 77-year-old power broker of Thai politics who remains in contention for a role in government, even as prime minister, if Srettha’s bid fails.