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Thailand Political Landscape after May 2023 Election

Sarawut Thiramanit, Associate Consultant

Ben Kiatkwankul, Partner


The recent general elections have put the conservative, army-associated camp, and the progressive, pro-democracy camp head-to-head. The public sentiment demonstrating the need for change from a decade of junta-backed government is seen in the victory of Move Forward Party. Unable to form a government, Pheu Thai emerged as the next-in-line and must now work together with old enemies shouldering the heavy burden to prove themselves to the voters.


Background


Since 2014 after the former PM Thaksin Shinawatra was forced into exile, Thailand has been in the military control under PM Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha with the promise to wipe the country of any corruption cases resulting from the so-called Thaksinomics and his administrative regime. In 2016, a referendum was concluded with many criticisms resulting in a new constitution and a peace keeping term that requires both the lower and the upper houses to elect a prime minister.


In 2019, the junta-led Phalang Pracharat Party (PPP) controversially won the first general elections since the 2014 coup allowing Gen Prayuth to serve his second term as PM. The recent general elections in May 2023 were a fight between the existing coalition of conservative, former junta parties, and the pro-democracy, anti-junta parties. The former was led by PPP, the largest junta party led by one of the masterminds behind the coup, Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, and the entrepreneurial Bhumjaithai Party famed for its legalising (medical) cannabis campaign.


Later, the Gen Prayuth resigned from PPP and formed his own party, Ruam Thai Sarng Chat. The latter consisted of the Thaksin’s legacy party Pheu Thai and the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP). MFP is a de facto successor of Future Forward Party headed by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the vice president of a country’s leading automotive parts manufacturer, and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, an outspoken legal scholar and reform activist. Future Forward was dissolved by the Election Committee in 2019, both Thanathorn and Piyabutr along with some other party leaders were banned from politics for 10 years. MFP is currently headed by Pita Limjaroenrat.


For the past decade, the Thai politics has been the struggle between the old and the new, the conservatives and the progressive. Move Forward emerged as a leader playing a significant role in shaping the political dynamics as Thailand has witnessed multiple protests around the country, predominantly calling for the abolishment of any remnants of the junta along with the revision of the junta’s constitution. The movements also advance to challenge conservative values and contesting the country’s “unquestionable” controversies such as the monarchy and Thai Criminal Code’s “Article 112” known as the draconian lèse-majesté law. Many juveniles have been arrested as a result.


As the opposition of the past government, MFP notoriously uncovered of numerous political scandals, including the unlawful promotion of high-ranking officials, especially among the police and the army, the oddities in the government spendings, the public health mismanagement of pandemic situation supervised jointly by Bhumjaithai’s public health ministry and the PM’s special taskforce as well as the AstraZeneca scandal rooted from Siam Bioscience whose shares are held by the King.



May 2023 General Elections


“Vote for Move Forward; Thailand will not be the same,” is one amongst the most impactful slogans used amongst the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) supporters over the past months. And not the same indeed is Thailand since the Party won the majority vote from the recent general elections on May 14, 2023, as Thai citizens have witnessed several surprises in the politics. The party won the elections gaining 151 MPs out of 500 seats, making it the largest party in the House of Representatives. MFP has taken all constituencies in Bangkok except one in Ladkrabang, and has successfully overturned local politicians key strategic provinces across the country.


Following the general elections, the to-be coalition was formed between 8 parties, led by MFP and Pheu Thai. The deal was sealed shortly after with the announcement of the 23-point MOU, with the major focus on the revival of democratic rules, constitutional reforms, army reforms, the all-out combat against corruption, distribution of wealth, abolishment of monopolies and promotion of fair competition. MFP’s controversial pledge for changes in the lèse-majesté laws were however not mentioned.


Amidst the cloudy situation to set up a new government, Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, a political veteran with roots from the Deep south of Thailand and an association with Thaksin during his reign from 2001-2006, was elected as the House Speaker. He is the leader of Prachachat Party, a Pheu Thai’s sister party, and is seen as the intermediary between Move Forward-Pheu Thai power struggle.



Move Forward’s Turning Tables


The road to premiership for MFP’s Pita Limjaroenrat was obstructed by the Election Commission who filed 3 charges for his ownership of shares of a defunct TV broadcaster, iTV, which has since 2007 ceased all media-related operation. The allegation resulted in the order to suspend all of Pita’s position as MP and the nomination as Prime Minister. Additionally, the Constitutional Court accepted complaints concerning the Party’s plan to reform the lèse-majesté laws as an attempt to "overthrow the democratic regime of government with the king as a head of state".


The association between the Party and the rise of progressive movements followed by the victory of the progressive bloc has upset their conservative counterpart. The momentum has been pronounced especially amongst the royalists, since the Article 112 reform campaign has evidently become one of the Party’s most debated topics as lèse-majesté is considered the linchpin of all the old, conservative values challenged by the young generations. The campaign was thus used to backstab MFP as senators along with the conservative parties determined not to support the Party should they stubbornly insist on the revision of the lèse-majesté laws.


Although the Move Forward coalition held the majority 310 seats in the 500-seat lower house, they required a total of 376 votes also from those 250 from the upper house of the 750-seat bicameral parliament to successfully lead the new government. To-date, the senators are those who were handpicked by the junta government. They are given by the 2017 constitution the authority to vote for . Pita subsequently failed the first vote for premiership. Shortly after, the parliament also voted against Pita’s renomination shutting the door on his road to become the next prime minister, also hinted the end of his party’s opportunity to form a government.



“Choc-Mint” and the Return of Thaksin


Following multiple rounds of meetings, the parliamentarians turned to Pheu Thai as the next contenders to lead the government. Two months after the General Elections, Pheu Thai Party finally announced its break from original coalition due to the nuances that having MFP in the team would be a major deadlock to secure the senators’ support and that it is “necessary for the country needs to move on”.


Pheu Thai moved swiftly to clink glasses of “choc-mint”, a chocolate-mint drink which became a political symbol for Pheu Thai’s alliance, with 11 parties to form a new coalition. The new choc-mint alliance has shocked the country with the inclusion of those from the conservatives, including Gen Prawit’s Phalang Pracharat and Gen Prayuth’s Ruam Thai Sarng Chart – the military-backed parties who drove the Shinawatra family into exile. Move Forward had drunken choc-mint with Pheu Thai along with 6 other parties before.


Choc-mint has fast become a buzzword used as a reference for broken promises and the representation of the unlikely marriage between Pheu Thai and its archenemies.


Currently, MFP is the largest party in the opposition alongside Sudarat Keyuraphan’s new party, Thai Sang Thai and the Deep South pacifier Pen Tham Party (Fair Party) from the original coalition. Thailand’s oldest political party, the Democrat Party will also be amongst the opposition.


Lurking on the horizon was the fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra’s announcement of his return. Confirmed initially by his daughter, Praetongtarn, he would land at Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok on August 10, but was postponed due to a doctor’s appointment. Over his 15-year self-exile period, he has announced his intention to return to Thailand multiple times to face all allegations against him mainly involving corruption and abuse of power.


On August 22, Thaksin finally arrived home safe and sound. As he was taken into custody to serve his 8-year jail term, Thailand named Srettha Thavisin of the Pheu Thai Party the 30th Prime Minister of Thailand. The same night, Thaksin was transferred to the Police General Hospital due to multiple illnesses.



The New Government and its promises


Srettha Thavisin is known as a real estate tycoon, who gave up his title as the CEO of Sansiri PLC, one of Thailand’s largest property developers, and became one of the three Pheu Thai’s PM candidates alongside Praetongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest daughter, and Dr Chonlanan Srikaew, the leader of Pheu Thai Party and former leader of the opposition in the lower house. With no prior experience in politics, many have questioned his leadership style and his ability to deliver what was promised during the campaign. Pheu Thai’s decision to form the new coalition has also upset a number of groups, including the Move Forward supporters and some of Pheu Thai’s own fans.



Continuation of Thaksinomics?


Amidst this complex political landscape, the establishment of a new government and the subsequent cabinet formation have drawn scrutiny, particularly regarding Sretth's roleas a mere nominee for Thaksin Shinawatra. Notwithstanding the circumstances, the policies espoused by the Pheu Thai party have consistently leaned on numerous populist measures, paralleling the principles inherent in the Thaksinomics policy. These policies are characterized by a heightened emphasis on bolstering government subsidies aimed at benefiting grassroots communities and segments of society.


Thaksin likened the nation to a corporation, with the prime minister as its CEO. This analogy prompted an administrative reform aimed at enhancing efficiency, mirroring corporate management practices. The introduction of this CEO-style governance sought to streamline policies, providing clear leadership across departments, ministries, and the cabinet at all hierarchical levels.


To comprehend the Thaksinomics policy, a retrospective analysis takes us back to the tenure of Thaksin, who held office through the Thai Rak Thai party in 2001. During his tenure, he introduced populist economic strategies termed the "Dual Track Policy." This policy agenda primarily aimed to enhance the global competitiveness of Thailand's economy by focusing on its external dimensions—namely, bolstering exports, attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), and promoting tourism. Concurrently, the government pursued initiatives to strengthen domestic and grassroots economies, exemplified by projects like the Village Fund. These grassroots-oriented measures were tailored to gain popularity particularly in rural areas encompassed ambitious commitments, including substantial cash subsidies and a considerable rise in the minimum wage.


Against the public scrutiny concerning the new coalition’s ability to fight Thailand’s democracy crisis, the revival of Thaksinomics may rescue Pheu Thai’s popularity. The Party’s popularity plunged as low as 62.24 percent in a poll, following the dissolution of the original coalition and the formation of the new one with junta-associated parties.



Policy Direction


Economic Policies: The Pheu Thai government is famed for its multifaceted approach to economic policies with proven records. Deriving from its heritage, the country is expected to see a series of stimulus packages being injected into the economy. Undergoing major scrutiny, “10,000 digital baht for all” is first to be given to all citizens of Thailand with the potential to catalyze a sixfold increase in economic growth – an equivalent of 3 trillion baht.

Export contraction due to dependency of a few larger markets, the new government will find other destinations such as Africa, India, and the Middle East. Other policies include the elevation of the minimum wage to 600 baht per day and ensuring the minimum household income for each family above the threshold of 20,000 baht.


Transportation Infrastructure: In the sphere of transportation policies, an overarching focus lies in the connectivity of rail networks spanning from Laos PRD to Laem Chabang Seaport and Suvarnabhumi Airport. This strategic move aims at facilitating the movement of goods and services, thereby enhancing domestic and cross-border trade dynamics. A notable connection is with China through an extensive high-speed rail network first discussed during the former PM Yingluck’s government. This network assumes a pivotal role within the overarching Silk Road Economic Belt, serving as a gateway to South Asia, the Middle East, Russia, and Europe.


Tourism Policies: The Pheu Thai Party will continue Thailand's ambition to be the world’s medical hub. Additionally, the party focuses on hosting internationally festivals, enhancing global connectivity through transport infrastructure and strengthen tourism security.


Foreign Policies: Pheu Thai has vowed to improve Thailand’s status at the international stage. The foreign policies are predicted to be more proactive to promote international cooperation judging from their previous reigns. Srettha’s government will take on the continuing FTA negotiations, including that with the European Union. They will also have to ratify its previous stance towards Russia-Ukraine and Burma crises. Additionally, they are set to elevate the influence of Thai passports, reducing international barriers, and streamlining travel by negating the necessity for visa applications. This progressive approach seeks to expedite international mobility and enhance Thailand's global accessibility.


Risks

The formation of the new Pheu Thai coalition government has given rise to tensions that could potentially challenge the government on two fronts: government stability and economic policy concerns. Foremost among these challenges is the issue of government instability. The Pheu Thai party's actions, including dissolving the pro-democracy alliance coalition and forming an alliance with pro-military parties like the Palang Pracharath Party and United Thai Nation Party, have created a sense of distrust and aversion towards the Pheu Thai party due to their shifting allegiances.


Notwithstanding the good track record of Pheu Thai’s performance in terms of economic development, the Party may have a hard time fine-tuning with its coalition. The three-month attempt to form a government resulting in the unlikely marriage between Pheu Thai and its military rivals who ousted the Party’s founder can further limit the Pheu Thai’s ability to move at its will. The coordination between parties of polar different ideologies after decades of polarised politics will remain a major concern for this government.


The return of ex-PM Thaksin as an influential figure in Thai politics also adds another layer of unpredictability. Despite being sentenced to at least 8-year in jail, the question remains whether he would continue to be the invisible force behind the Thai politics under Pheu Thai’s leadership.


It is also noteworthy that certain policies introduced during the pre-election campaign might encounter obstacles on their path to parliamentary approval. This is due to the necessity for the government to adhere rigorously to the junta’s 20-Year National Strategic Plan. These requirements could potentially impede the immediate approval and implementation of new policies.


Opportunities


Past performance record of the Pheu Thai government promises comprehensive policy framework positions Thailand as a highly attractive landscape for foreign investors. Running a country as a corporation indicates a more efficient and forward-looking approach to public administration. During the first Thaksin government, Thailand finally escaped the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and repaid IMF debts ahead of schedule. Pheu Thai was also one of the first to spearhead the regulatory guillotine in Thailand to simplify bureaucratic processes and regulations to increase ease of doing business in Thailand.


The new cabinet line-up endorsed by the King has revealed several familiar faces from the previous regime but shuffled to different ministries. Public scrutiny has already fired at the formation regarding the job suitability of the candidates. Such formation may imply the level of authority in which Pheu Thai has over the new government as the leader of the new government. One can thus anticipate the continuity of public development directions from the previous government.



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