The outcome of Thailand’s general election in May was clear: voters dealt a stunning blow to the ruling military junta by supporting a progressive party that challenged not only the generals but also the nation’s powerful monarchy.
The generals and their allies responded on Thursday by rejecting the party’s main candidate for prime minister, plunging the country into a political vacuum and potentially pushing it further toward autocracy.
Parliament failed to elect a new prime minister Thursday evening after the progressive candidate, Pita Limjaroenrat, failed to muster enough support in the military-backed Senate, where lawmakers are loyal to the generals who have ruled Thailand since seizing power in a near-coup. a decade ago.
As night fell over rainy Bangkok, one of Southeast Asia’s most important economies stared down what looked like another intense period of political unrest and nationwide protests.
“This is déjà vu,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University, referring to the cycles of elections, protests, coups and crackdowns that have occurred in Thailand since 2007.
Now it’s up to Parliament again to pick from the field of candidates in what is likely to be a tumultuous week ahead that may or may not end with a new prime minister in charge. A second vote is scheduled for July 19. A third, if necessary, would take place a day later.
While Mr Pita, 42, is relatively new to Thailand’s political drama, the nagging sense of drifting into civil strife is not. The country’s recent history is littered with military coups; protestors led widespread demonstrations against a royalist establishment that they said had consistently thwarted efforts to introduce democratic reforms.
“There is a pattern here of establishment pushback against any progressive movement in Thai politics,” Mr Thitinan added. “And the pushback comes in different shapes and forms,” including dissolutions of political parties and disqualifications of major candidates.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Mr. Pita, a former technology executive who holds degrees from prestigious American universities, positioned himself as a champion of reform. On the campaign trail he called for changing a law that criminalizes public criticism of the Thai monarchy – a move considered unthinkable a decade ago.
“I want to be the leader of the people,” he said in Parliament on Thursday. “To tell the world that Thailand is ready. To seek a new balance between international political powers.”
But Thailand’s parliament seemed unwilling to accept such a vision. Although Mr Pita’s political party, Move Forward, built a multi-party coalition, he received only 324 combined votes in the House of Representatives and the Senate – short of the 376 he needed to win the premiership.
Supporters of Mr Pita’s coalition rallied on Thursday outside the parliament building in Bangkok, where the vote took place, with some vowing to hit the streets in protest if he does not win enough votes to become prime minister.
“The votes cast, the 25 million votes, are sacred votes that will shape the future of the country,” said Arnon Nampha, a political activist and protest leader, during a protest on Wednesday night, referring to the votes in May. for Move Forward and Pheu Thai, the second largest party in the coalition.
“If you want to change this, no way, we won’t allow it,” he added.
Mr Thitinan said he expected a repeat of the flash-style protests that erupted in Thailand during the coronavirus pandemic and were led by young demonstrators demanding control over the vast power of the Thai monarchy.
Mr Pita already suffered a major setback on Wednesday when Thailand’s Election Commission asked the Constitutional Court to suspend him from Parliament. He was under investigation for allegedly owning undeclared shares in a media company, which could disqualify him from running for office.
The Constitutional Court also said on Wednesday that it had accepted a complaint against Mr Pita over his calls to change the law that punishes criticism of the monarchy. Analysts predicted that both moves would give Mr. Pita’s opponents in the Senate a convenient excuse not to vote for him.
Mr. Pita’s progressive coalition may not be strong enough to withstand the loss. Members of Pheu Thai, in particular, could try to form a new coalition that is led by one of their own candidates for prime minister.
A likely scenario is that Pheu Thai would field Srettha Thavisin, a property tycoon who is considered a more palatable candidate among Thailand’s military establishment.
However, he said, Pheu Thai could be a good compromise for reform-minded voters who supported Mr. Pita.
As for the old guard, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who took power after leading Thailand’s 2014 military coup, said on Tuesday he would retire from politics after a new government is formed. But even if he steps down, analysts said the military and its allies may try to hold on to power in other ways.
The military has implemented a system in which it basically controls one chamber of the parliament, the Senate. To keep one of its own, the military could promote General Prawit Wongsuwan, a member of the ruling party, as a possible candidate for prime minister during next week’s vote.
“Almost all the senators were chosen by General Prawit,” said Jade Donavanik, an expert on Thai politics at the College of Asian Scholars in Thailand, referring to the 250 members of that chamber. “This is part of the problem.”
The election is being closely watched, not least because Thailand is an important player in a region where several countries have slipped back into autocracy after experiments with democracy. Thailand was once a stable ally of the United States but has moved closer to China under the current junta.
For decades, the country has been dominated by two opposing political forces – one led by conservative royalists and militarists, the other by Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecommunications tycoon and populist politician who served as prime minister for five years before he was ousted in a 2006 coup. . .
His sister Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister in 2011 and was forced from office days before the 2014 coup.
Move Forward has captured a similar kind of energy that Mr. Thaksin’s populist movement once did, and its failure on Thursday appeared to be another example of Thailand’s royalist establishment pushing back a popular political candidate.
Mr Wanwichit, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said Move Forward’s aggressive calls for reforming the monarchy may have been too extreme for most voters, even those who consider themselves liberal and in favor of democratic reform.
“At the moment, the monarchy is seen as the main pillar of the country,” he said. “Whether you are liberal or conservative, you still respect the monarchy as embodying the dignity of the nation.”