After winning the general election in May, the progressive Move Forward party in Thailand promised to introduce bold democratic reforms in the Southeast Asian nation. But last week, the party suffered an embarrassing defeat in Parliament when its candidate of choice failed to muster enough votes to win the premiership and form a government.
Now, as Parliament gathers on Wednesday to vote for prime minister for a second time in less than a week, the fragile coalition that Move Forward has cobbled together is on the verge of falling apart. At stake may be the fate of democracy in a nation that has repeatedly tried to overturn military rule and in a region where autocracy is on the rise.
“Thailand is not ready to change,” said Pongkwan Sawasdipakdi, a political scientist at Thammasat University in Bangkok. “People in the establishment are not going to let change happen.”
Opposition parties tend to come and go in Thailand. Each time, they face rough headwinds brought on by the military-appointed Senate and royalist allies that form the bedrock of the country’s conservative political establishment.
Move Forward’s predecessor, the Future Forward Party, was dissolved by the Thai government in 2020 after being accused of violating election law. The leader of Move Forward, Pita Limjaroenrat, is under investigation for owning undisclosed shares of a media company, which could disqualify him from office.
Supporters see both cases as flagrant moves by the establishment to block the opposition from wresting power from the ruling conservative government.
If the Move Forward coalition falls short on Wednesday, that may be a prelude to another cycle of unrest in Thailand, which was rocked by widespread pro-democracy protests during the coronavirus pandemic. But analysts say the opposition could offer a compromise: a new coalition led by the populist Pheu Thai Party, a familiar name in Thai politics that hews much closer to the status quo.
After Wednesday, Pheu Thai could try to form an alternate coalition that appeals to voters who thought Move Forward was pushing for too much change, as well as to the conservative establishment, whose dismal performance in the election has left it with few options for maintaining its present grip on power.
Forming a new opposition coalition will present its own challenges for Pheu Thai.
For any new coalition to stand a chance, it needs to include conservative and military-backed parties, which will make demands that will likely run counter to the wishes of Move Forward voters. Those supporters, rather than backing the new government, may choose to take to the streets.
“There will be protests,” said Phit Bunwiwatthanakan, 32, a Move Forward voter who owns a cat cafe in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai. “People feel that, since they won the election, their people have a right to form a government.”
There is also a possibility that Mr. Pita may not be given the opportunity to stand for renomination on Wednesday. He has said that if it becomes clear Move Forward cannot get him approved as prime minister, the party would allow Pheu Thai to lead the same coalition.
The sort of compromises Pheu Thai might be willing to make in order to form its own coalition are unclear. The party, which won the second-largest vote share in the election, was established by Thailand’s most famous politician, the populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been living in exile after being ousted by a coup and accused of corruption. Many of Mr. Thaksin’s populist policies remain popular among Thais.
“Pheu Thai’s really in the driver’s seat for deciding the future of Thailand,” in part because the establishment will likely try to dissolve Move Forward, said David Streckfuss, a historian and the author or “Truth on Trial in Thailand.”
With the vote on Wednesday unlikely to end with a new government in power, analysts are already looking ahead to a third vote, which could happen as early as Thursday.
Winning the premiership requires a simple majority of votes in the 500-seat House of Representatives and the 250-seat, military-appointed Senate. Pheu Thai has 141 seats, just 10 less than Move Forward, so it would need conservative parties to cobble together a new coalition.
A coalition built by Pheu Thai would likely be led by Srettha Thavisin, 60, a property mogul with little political experience, but who is seen as a more palatable option to the generals than Mr. Pita, the Move Forward candidate. (Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, the youngest daughter of Mr. Thaksin, had been an early front-runner in the general election, but told reporters on Tuesday that the party would support Mr. Srettha as prime minister.)
To some Pheu Thai supporters, Move Forward’s tactics, including its refusal to water down its ambitious plans challenging the military and the monarchy, look unworkable in a hierarchical society where pragmatic, palace-friendly parties tend to do best.
Pheu Thai cannot deliver on economic priorities if Move Forward leaders “keep complaining about social issues and laws,” Sanpiti Sittipunt, the son of the governor of Bangkok, wrote on Instagram on Tuesday. He added that Move Forward should “listen to the adults.”
By defecting from the opposition coalition formed by Move Forward, Pheu Thai could damage its political brand and that of its figurehead, Mr. Thaksin. But the long-term reputational damage might be worth another chance at power, analysts said, particularly if a compromise with the military involved getting permission for Mr. Thaksin to return from exile in Dubai.
For now, Pheu Thai is still publicly projecting unity with Move Forward. This week, the two allies and their six smaller partners agreed that Mr. Pita would stand again for the second vote for prime minister on Wednesday.
If street protests swell across Thailand after the votes are cast, the fear is that the military would feel compelled to restore order with gunfire, as it did in 2010, or even with a coup, as it did four years later.
Any protests would probably only escalate if a military figure became prime minister again, following the lead of the current one, former Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Analysts say there is still an outside chance that the conservative establishment could nominate its own candidate for a third vote, such as Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, 77, a top official in the current government.
Every possible move to break the current political impasse risks creating more problems, said Jatuporn Prompan, a former protest leader and Pheu Thai lawmaker. A prolonged state of limbo without a prime minister could lead to raging demonstrations, followed by a crackdown, and perhaps another coup.
“This is why the country’s in a crisis,” he said.
Ms. Paetongtarn, Mr. Thaksin’s youngest daughter, said that Pheu Thai was eager to get to work on developing the economy and improving the lives of ordinary people. “If we focus on the small picture, it’s one of who’s up and this and that,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “But the country has to move on already.”
Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.