Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party (centre), at a rally in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 18, 2023.

Valeria Mongelli | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Thailand’s preliminary election results were a triumph for the progressive Move Forward party, but its reforms will threaten conservative forces that may move to prevent the pro-democracy party from governing.

Move Forward leader and prime minister-elect Pita Limjaroenrat has announced a six-party coalition that includes Pheu Thai, a populist, pro-democracy party that came second in the election.

This gives the coalition 310 seats in the 500-seat lower house of parliament. Whoever the coalition appoints as prime minister must win 376 parliamentary votes – a combined number from the 250-seat, military-appointed Senate and House of Commons. The vote for prime minister is expected in August after the electoral commission has certified the election results.

Analysts say Move Forward faces a daunting task of securing the remaining 66 votes because of its controversial proposed policies – a new constitution, which would end military dominance in politics, abolish compulsory military conscription, abolish business monopolies and revise the majesty law that punishes insults to the king with imprisonment.

Move Forward’s agenda is an insult and a frontal challenge to the established centers of power.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Professor, Chulalongkorn University

The Move Forward party recently said potential coalition partners need not support its position on majesty as it plans to present it in parliament independently – its refusal to compromise could also isolate potential allies and most of the junta-led Senate.

Ahead of the prime ministerial vote, political observers predict a variety of outcomes, including the possibility of coercive intervention by the country’s powerful military-monarchy alliance.

“Move Forward’s agenda is an affront and a frontal challenge to the established power centers,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science and senior fellow at the Institute for Security and International Studies.

“It’s likely a matter of when and how — not if — they’ll fight back.”

Establishment-led escalation

Given Move Forward’s dogmatic stance, experts expect some kind of power play that would tailor the outcome to establishment preferences.

Arch-Ungalists may go so far as to ban Move Forward, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) warned in a report.

It is a plausible scenario because royalist conservative elites have dominated official bodies such as the Constitutional Court, the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Electoral Commission. The opposition party Future Forward, for example, was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in 2020 for violating electoral laws in the 2019 election – a charge that Human Rights Watch called “politically motivated.”

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“The courts may find ways to thwart enough Move Forward and Pheu Thai victories to shift the balance of power,” analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reiterated in a separate report.

There is also a chance that Pita himself could become a target.

He was recently charged with an unconstitutional offense for having been a small shareholder in a now defunct media company when he served as a Member of Parliament, which he denies. This could be potential grounds for his disqualification and allow the less radical Pheu Thai to lead the coalition, according to Pongsudhirak.

There is a precedent for Pita’s case to be cleared, noted Napisa Waitoolkiat, a political scientist at Naresuan University.

Conservative forces have all the necessary tools at their disposal to prevent Move Forward from taking government.

Susannah Patton

Lowy Institute

In 2001, the Constitutional Court cleared former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of concealing assets even after he was indicted on corruption charges, she said. “If the elite choose to respect the votes of the Thai people, they can surely do the same thing this time as they did to Thaksin in 2001.”

There are other ways for the Senate to block Move Forward. Senators could abstain from voting and refuse to confirm Pita, leading to a deadlock, according to CSIS. T

The Senate could also counter House of Commons MPs’ choice of prime minister unless the elusive 376-vote supermajority is secured, Susannah Patton, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Lowy Institute, said in a report. She pointed to statements by senators which indicated that they do not automatically support the winning party’s nominee.

“Conservative forces have all the necessary tools at their disposal to prevent Move Forward from taking government,” Patton concluded.

A Pheu Thai betrayal

Led by the daughter of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin, Pheu Thai is an opposition party that is more cautious about its messages about the monarchy. Analysts say there is a chance it could break ranks with Move Forward to work with pro-military parties to negotiate strategic gains.

“Given Pheu Thai’s desire for power, the party leadership may see Move Forward’s progressive stances and its threat to the monarchy as a political liability,” the CFR noted in its report. “If Pheu Thai abandons its pro-democracy comrades in the pursuit of power, the Bhumjaithai Party is likely to play an important role as a kingmaker in forming a coalition.”

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Bhumjaithai, known for his strong support for the legalization of marijuana, are considered ideologically flexible as they are pro-establishment but open to working with pro-democracy outfits.

There is one key reason Pheu Thai might abandon Move Forward, Pongsudhirak said — and that is to “conclude a coalition agreement that would include Thaksin’s return to Thailand from exile on softened terms related to his conviction and imprisonment.”

However, doing so has long-term repercussions for Pheu Thai’s image.

“Pheu Thai will risk being punished electorally by the pro-democracy voters, who are the main supporters of Pheu Thai in the future,” Waitoolkiat warned.

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After recovering from a pandemic-induced recession, officials may also not want street demonstrations that risk derails investor confidence and economic growth.

“While the Thai military has been prepared to bear the risk of protests from Thailand’s rural northeast in the past, Move Forward’s commanding gains in Bangkok and other urban centers may make the military think twice,” Patton said. She referred to comments from the Thai Chamber of Commerce which indicated a desire among business groups for a stable government rather than another period of political tumult.

“The establishment may therefore judge that allowing Move Forward to take office is a smarter tactical move,” she continued. “During previous periods of instability, such as the 2014 coup, the establishment acted when it felt all options were exhausted.”

“This time, policymakers can figure out that they can allow events to take their course and use legal options to act later if red lines are crossed,” Patton added.