Thailand’s Parliament is about to elect a new prime minister, and the hopes of a generation are at stake.


Thailand’s parliament will vote for a new prime minister on Thursday, and the country’s young and urbane are about to find out if their support for a progressive opposition party in May elections will translate into genuine power.

Not long ago, they were basking in the euphoria of the party’s impressive victory, preparing for change and democratic reform. Two months later, they are faced with the image of Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, 79, considered a member of the old guard, as the «new» speaker of the Thai House of Representatives.

Young voters had propelled the Move Forward Party, led by Harvard-educated 42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat, to an unprecedented majority of seats in Parliament after nine years of military rule, but this was too small for the match could. boost his own candidates, forcing him to form a coalition with seven other parties.

Move Forward had campaigned on an ambitious structural reform agenda targeting the country’s monarchy, monopolies and military. These goals essentially extended the goals of the student protests over two years ago that were caused by the dissolution of a political party — The predecessor entity of Move Forward, which was highly critical of outgoing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the former military general who seized power in a coup in 2014 and made changes to the Thai constitution in 2017.

His slim majority has made his agenda vulnerable to the machinations of the institutions he seeks to reform, along with the intertwined patronage networks that remain despite the ouster of several influential business families in this election. The installation of Wan Noor as a compromise candidate after Pheu Thai, the second-placed party, objected to Move Forward’s election, was just the beginning.

Limjaroenrat, 42, takes a selfie with supporters at a rally in Bangkok on Sunday. Lauren De Cicca / Getty Images

“The election of Mr. Wan Muhamad Noor Matha as speaker of the House indicates that the Pheu Thai Party has significant influence over the Move Forward Party,” said Syetarn Hansakul, a senior analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

«It puts the Pheu Thai Party in an advantageous position if Mr. Pita does not get enough votes from the senators to endorse him as prime minister.»

barriers to power

Indeed, it is unclear whether Limjaroenrat will actually lead Thailand’s new government when the bicameral National Assembly convenes to begin the prime ministerial vote on Thursday, which could be the first of many.

Limjaroenrat needs 376 votes to become prime minister. He has 312 of his eight-party coalition from the 500-seat lower house, so this means he would still need about 64 more votes from the 250-member Senate, a body appointed by the royalist army after the 2014 coup.

That’s for does not mean a guarantee as one of Move Forward’s stated goals is to amend Thailand’s lèse majesté law, which criminalizes criticism of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and other members of the royal family.

«It’s not our job to listen to people,» Thai Senator Prapanth Koonmee said in June. «Even if you got 100 million votes, I wouldn’t choose you if I don’t like you or don’t find you suitable.»

In fact, Nomura assigned a 60% chance that Pheu Thai, rather than Move Forward, would lead the coalition government after Wan Noor’s endorsement as House Speaker last week.

“Neither is the preferred option for the Thai establishment,” said the EIU’s Hansakul. “Between the two, however, Pheu Thai represents less of a threat to the status quo of the Thai establishment” as it does not proclaim an agenda to reform the monarchy and the military in Thailand, he said.

Limjaroenrat could also be disqualified due to a complaint against his shareholding in a media company, which is illegal under Thai law.

Still, a government led by Limjaroenrat’s Move Forward may spell trouble for monopolies in the spirits and energy sectors, as the party aims to level the playing field, according to the EIU’s Hansakul. The business community has also resisted a plan to significantly increase the minimum wage.

Even if Limjaroenrat succeeds in seizing the role of prime minister, a Move Forward-led government will face significant obstacles because the Senate retains substantial veto power and Pheu Thai holds a significant share of the seats in the coalition.

“As a result, Move Forward may not be able to secure their preferred ministerial portfolios, as evidenced by the fact that the House speaker has not been appointed,” said Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

generational change

Limjaroenrat has not given up. At a Sunday rally in downtown Bangkok, he addressed hundreds of supporters, reminding senators that «we are all the politicians of the people.»

There may be further protests if Limjaroenrat and Move Forward are prevented from leading the new government.

Move Forward’s upset victory in May was heralded as «a profound and momentous result for Thai politics over the past two decades» as the Thai people rallied for change and reform, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of politics and international relations at Chulalongkorn University, he told CNBC after the May election.

His victory was seen as a break with the populist appeal of Thaksin Shinawatra, the tycoon and former prime minister who went into self-imposed exile in 2008 to avoid a jail sentence for abuse of power after a military coup that toppled his government for two years. earlier.

He has continued to influence Thai politics from a distance – Pheu Thai is the latest iteration of his party’s vehicle after courts dissolved several earlier – but Move Forward’s rise in this election points to its waning influence among uninvolved youth. familiar with his biography

In fact, the new president Wan Noor could be considered part of this old guard: he is a veteran of at least nine political parties, including Pheu Thai’s predecessor entity, Thai Rak Thai, and a former Speaker of the House in the late 1990s. 1990 under three different prime ministers. He recently associated himself with the Prachachat Party.

“This new generation wants a structural change that Thaksin cannot offer. He is always trying to reconcile himself to the old money, he is still courting the king for the right to return,» said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor of politics at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

«The issue of the monarchy is at the center of the struggle in Thai politics today,» he added. Some 250 of the 1,914 prosecutions linked to the 2020 protests were carried out under the lèse majesté law, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights — with many minors among these cases.

While objections from the monarchist military establishment and the old guard may derail Move Forward’s ambitions, Limjaroenrat’s party can still command the mandate of 14 million Thai voters.

“If pro-democracy social movements do not lose momentum, support for the party is likely to persist, even if the courts disqualify the party or its leader,” said Jatusripitak of ISEAS Yusof Ishak.

There is also an argument that Move Forward could be more effective in opposition for now.

“In Thailand, political parties are short-lived as they tend to lack lasting organizational roots at the local level and tend to be dissolved at the hands of the courts,” Jatusripitak said.

“From this point of view, the transformation of Move Forward into a movement-based political party following the pro-democracy moves in 2020-2021 is a strategic adaptation that should keep support for the party alive for the time being,” he added.

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