Who Will Be the Next Prime Minister of Thailand? Thai Elections Results Explained
The process of selecting the Southeast Asian nation's next Prime Minister may not be as straightforward as it appears at first glance.
Were it to be operating under a conventional Westminster parliamentary system, identifying the next government of Thailand would have been relatively straightforward. At polls held on May 14, 2023, pro-democracy parties Move Forward (152 seats) and Pheu Thai (141 seats) won a crushing victory over the two main pro-junta parties, who won a combined total of 76 seats in the House of Representatives. Such a result signals the Thai electorate’s rejection of continued authoritarian rule and its desire for a liberal democratic system of government as parliament prepares to nominate Thailand’s new Prime Minister on July 13, 2023.
Yet despite the pro-democratic camp’s seemingly one-sided victory, they may yet be denied the opportunity to form the next government of Thailand. In most Westminster parliamentary systems, the leader of the largest party in the popularly elected lower house will be appointed Prime Minister by the head of state. In the context of Thailand, this would mean that the next Prime Minister would typically be expected to come from either Move Forward or Pheu Thai, implying a more liberal and reformist government going into the next parliamentary term.
Thailand’s constitution, however, requires that prime ministerial candidates also gain the confidence of 250 senators in the Thai senate. Senators are not democratically elected. Most of the current senators were appointed by the Thai junta, which may make them more resistant to appointing a pro-democracy candidate to the premiership. The senate proved crucial in determining the results of the 2019 General Elections when it supported former general and junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha amid deadlock in the House of Representatives between pro-junta and pro-democracy parties.
The Art and Science of Power
Politics, however, is not merely about the science of electoral mathematics, but also the art of legitimizing one’s rule. While senatorial rejection of a pro-democracy Prime Ministerial candidate may secure the pro-junta camp’s continued grip on formal power, it risks further eroding much of the pro-junta camp’s remaining legitimacy in the wake of its electoral defeat. Prayut’s last term in office was beset by numerous incidents of political protests – led primarily by the young and the poor – calling for an end to authoritarianism, corruption, and government inefficiency.
A pro-junta minority government is moreover expected to be relatively weak given the overwhelming dominance of pro-democracy forces in the House of Representatives. Given that passing legislation requires the support of both the upper and lower houses, a pro-junta administration may find it difficult to advance its legislative program even if it gains power. Prime Minister Prayut himself has announced his retirement from politics, with Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul seen as a likely Prime Ministerial candidate for a pro-junta coalition.
Pro-democracy parties are aware of the need to win senatorial support to convert their electoral gains into incumbency. Move Forward leader and Prime Minister-apparent Pita Limjaroenra claims to have gathered “enough” senatorial support to be nominated. Yet, his party’s radical platform, which includes amending the Kingdom’s controversial lese-majeste laws which criminalize insulting the Thai king, may put off more conservative senators from supporting him.
Pita himself is currently being investigated for violating election laws by holding shares in an allegedly defunct media company, ITV, which could prevent him from taking power. Thailand’s election commission has ruled that Pita may have committed an offense and has referred his case to the Constitutional Court of Thailand. These allegations echo similar charges levied against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who led Move Forward’s predecessor party before its dissolution. Rights groups allege that these charges are attempts by pro-junta forces to prevent the two reformist leaders from taking office.
Enter the Compromise Candidate
Equally concerning for Move Forward, however, is how it should go about appeasing its largest coalition partner, Pheu Thai. The current successor of the political movement headed by populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the party and its predecessors are used to being a party of power and formed the last democratically elected Thai government before the 2014 coup. Reports suggest that the party sees itself as a “heavyweight” and an “agenda-setter” and sought to appoint the lower house speaker from within its ranks, though it eventually agreed with Move Forward to support the leader of a minor coalition partner as a compromise candidate.
Amid potential difficulties in nominating Pita as Prime Minister, however, Pheu Thai and Move Forward have agreed to a pact that could see a Pheu Thai leader become Prime Minister. If Pita does not win nomination, Move Forward has agreed to support a Pheu Thai candidate as a new Prime Ministerial candidate. This “reserve” candidate is expected to be Srettha Thavisin, a real estate developer and close confident of Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, a former Pheu Thai prime minister who was ousted in the 2014 coup.
Given its previous record in power, a Pheu Thai leader may be relatively more acceptable to senators than Pita. With senators perhaps being more familiar with how Pheu Thai conducts itself in government, they may prefer to side with the “devil they know” vis-à-vis the greater perceived threat of the anti-establishment Move Forward party. Notwithstanding the fact that Thailand’s previous two military coups were conducted against pro-Thaksin administrations, it is likely that the need for compromise could turn enough moderate senators to tip Thavisin over the line.
Some analysts have suggested that Pheu Thai could abandon its coalition with Move Forward and join up with pro-junta forces to win power. Reports suggest, however that Pheu Thai strategists have warned that such a move would irrevocably damage the party’s credibility given its broadly anti-junta voter base.
An Uncertain Future
Hanging over the legislative horse-trading is the specter of another military coup. East-West Center fellows Charles E. Morrison and Phanwin Yokying draw parallels to developments in Myanmar, where a crushing victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 2020 was followed by a military coup several months later. For now, however, there is little sign of any coup attempt in the offing, with pro-junta forces declining to question the legitimacy of the election results as the Tatmadaw did following the 2020 elections. Thai army chief General Narongpan Jittkaewtae said after campaigning ended that there was “zero chance” of a new coup under his tenure, which ends this year.
As Thailand prepares to nominate its next leader on July 13, it finds itself at the crossroads facing an uncertain future. Whichever party ultimately controls the premiership, the first order of business is to regain the confidence of an electorate seeking a new kind of politics, bringing an end to two decades of political unrest. But with the identity of the next Prime Minister still a mystery amid political intrigue in Bangkok, political stability and legitimacy may once again prove elusive in the coming parliamentary term.
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The views and information contained in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Asia Cable.