Thailand’s road back to democratic rule faces key test

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BANGKOK — Thailand’s push to restore civilian democratic rule after nearly a decade of de facto military control faces a critical test with Shakespearean overtones Thursday, as the junta-appointed Senate may be sharpening the knives to block the big winner of May’s national elections from forming a new government.

Even with Tuesday’s surprise decision by lame-duck Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army commander who has dominated the government since leading a 2014 military takeover, to quit the political scene, it is not clear that Pita Limjaroenrat and his progressive new Move Forward Party have a clear path to power here.

The 250-member Senate, entirely selected by Mr. Prayuth’s government, is not considered a welcoming place for Mr. Pita, 44, despite his unexpected victory in a nationwide House election in May running on a platform to reform the U.S.-trained military and halt the country’s long tradition of civilian governments ousted through coups.

Mr. Pita also wants to overhaul the constitutional monarchy, slash the military’s opaque budget and its lucrative commercial enterprises, downsize the number of generals, end conscription and disband the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) which is currently grappling with Islamist Malay-Thai separatists in the south.

“We have developed a consensus for a new day here in Bangkok, Thailand,” Mr. Pita told CNN in an interview in May shortly after his party won a plurality of the seats in the national vote.

Consensus or not, it’s not an agenda likely to appeal to many of the 250 senators, given their backgrounds. At least some will have to break ranks under Thailand’s new constitution, however, if Mr. Pita is going to get the chance to head a new government.

Overhauling the system

Mr. Pita’s supporters portray Thursday’s legislative vote as the culmination of a pro-democracy popular movement to liberate this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation and longtime U.S. ally from a sclerotic, dictatorial political system. Mr. Pita, fluent in English and backed by strong support from younger Thais, appears in public as a jovial yuppie brimming with bright ideas, confident that he can overcome the constitutional hurdles in his path.

Born into an elite family, he received a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School, and an MBA from MIT. He became a rice bran oil entrepreneur and embarked on other financial ventures before entering politics in 2019.

His enemies portray him as a destabilizing force challenging the traditional authority of the military and the monarchy, criticisms that may resonate with many in the Senate.

Mr. Pita is “unlikely to be voted into office because his Move Forward Party’s (MFP) proposals are too radical for almost all senators — reform the monarchy and diminish the power of the military — in a country where these two ‘M’s dominate,” Paul Chambers, a lecturer in Thai politics at Naresuan University, said in an interview.

If Mr. Pita does become Thailand’s leader, Bangkok’s friendly relations with Washington and Beijing are expected to undergo subtle changes. Mr. Prayuth, whose authoritarian governing style drew occasional criticisms from Washington, was often willing to play China and the U.S. off in each in the superpower rivalry for influence in Southeast Asia.

“Pita would move Thailand further away from China,” Mr. Chambers said. “Part of this is because his party supports a foreign policy which backs more democratic governments — most of which happen to be pro-U.S.”

If Mr. Pita wins, U.S.-Thai “military cooperation is likely to be strengthened, with joint military exercises likely to receive more special support,” Wanwichit Boonprong, a Rangsit University political science lecturer, added.

Mr. Pita and his MFP won the most votes and seats — 14 million votes and 151 seats — on May 14 in nationwide elections for Parliament’s 500-seat House of Representatives. Mr. Prayuth’s newly formed United Thai Nation party, formed to contest the May vote, won just 36 House seats.

Since the election, Mr. Pita has assembled a disparate, eight-party coalition controlling 312 of the 500 newly elected House members.

But that means he still needs at least 64 more House or Senate votes to reach the 376 threshold needed to become prime minister — more than half of the combined Parliament’s 750 lawmakers.

Under a new constitution pushed through by the Prayuth government, the Senate was widely seen as a vehicle to protect the military and royalists from losing control to an elected House. Nearly half of the 250 senators are active or retired military and police officers, and include relatives of military officers who gained power after the 2014 coup.

“In Thai political history, the military has been drawn into the whirlpool of conflict, and has become a major player as the creator and destroyer of democracy,” Mr. Wanwichit said.

“The problem of the army at this time is that the size of the organization is too large, and there are approximately more than a thousand generals who have not retired, affecting the management of the budget,” he said.

Many senators also oppose Mr. Pita’s campaign to reform the powerful, usually untouchable, monarchy which is defended by a severe lèse-majesté law, Article 112, and punishable by 15 years in prison for perceived criticism. The new prime minister must receive the endorsement of Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn.

If Mr. Pita does not get 64 more seats in the House or Senate, he could stagger through a second or third Senate vote on July 19 and 20. 

Waiting in the wings

Among those waiting in the wings should he falter is Srettha Thavisin, a real estate tycoon in the rival Pheu Thai (For Thais) Party, which has 141 House seats in Mr. Pita’s squabbling coalition. He could be a more attractive — but also more provocative — choice given his party’s ties to ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who regularly clashed with conservatives before fleeing into self-exile abroad dodging 12 years of imprisonment for corruption and other convictions.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Mr. Shinawatra’s 36-year-old daughter, is a leading figure in the Pheu Thai party and had been a front-runner in the polls before the May election vaulted Mr. Pita past her.

Mr. Srettha “has more chances than Pita in the Senate, but because he is closely connected to Thaksin [Shinawatra], the Senate will also perhaps not select him,” Mr. Chambers said.

A coalition led by Mr. Srettha could attract more support in the parliamentary vote.

“If Srettha becomes prime minister, the first deputy prime minister can either go to Pita, or Move Forward deputy leader Sirikanya Tansakun,” wrote Khaosod English news columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk on Sunday. “Anything less than that, then we are probably witnessing the break-up of the current [Pita-led] pro-democracy coalition … that will see Move Forward being left in the opposition camp.

“Do not underestimate how ludicrous and low Thai politics can get in the weeks ahead,” Mr. Pravit said.

Should the civilian parties falter, another military figure is waiting in the wings even as Mr. Prayuth exits the stage: Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who is also deputy prime minister.

A lifelong colleague of Mr. Prayuth and a key player in the regime since the 2014 coup, Mr. Prawit is considered a shrewd political operator with allies on many sides.

He recently created his Palang Pracharat party so he could contest the elections.

“With only 40 MPs, his party is small but he is most likely to obtain the necessary amount of support from the Senate to become prime minister,” Mr. Chambers said. “After all, he chaired the committee which appointed the senators in 2019.”

“He could cobble together a coalition of 188 MPs, representing all of the MPs [who are] opposed to the 312 MPs in the coalition led by Pita. This unfortunately means that Prawit would lead a minority government. It would be difficult to pass any legislation,” Mr. Chambers said.

But there is a solution for Mr. Prawit or others.

“Such a minority government could be formed with the support of senators,” former foreign minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said in an interview.

If the Senate rejects Mr. Pita, he has an unusual filibuster option, running out the clock on a hostile Senate.

An outspoken Pheu Thai Party senior parliamentarian in Mr. Pita’s coalition, Chaturon Chaisang, recently floated the idea that the House should keep nominating Mr. Pita for prime minister no matter how many times the Senate rejects him.

The current Senate’s five-year term ends in 10 months — and a fresh bid by Mr. Pita and his coalition could then be tried with a new legislature not so beholden to the military and the monarchists, according to this scenario.

Fear meanwhile is spreading that if Mr. Pita does not become prime minister, his supporters will protest in the streets, resulting in bloodshed. Some suspect those fears are hyped to intimidate senators to vote for Mr. Pita.

“I think [Mr. Pita] and his party will be happy to be in the opposition if Pita fails to become prime minister” this week, Mr. Chambers said. “The Move Forward Party need only wait until May 2024 when the Senate will lose its constitutional powers to help select the prime minister.”

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