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No clear sign of when Thai opposition party leader will take over after shocking election victory

Thailand’s new Parliament convened Monday nearly two months after a progressive opposition party won a stunning election victory, but there was still no clear sign that its leader will be able to become prime minister and end nine years of military-dominated rule.

To form a government, a party must have the backing of a combined majority of the elected House of Representatives and the military-appointed Senate, which represents the country’s traditional conservative ruling class.

The Move Forward Party’s unexpected election victory alarmed the ruling establishment, which regards it as a threat to the status quo and the monarchy. Some senators have already announced their opposition to party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated businessman.

Pita has formed an eight-party coalition holding 312 seats in the 500-seat lower house, which leaves it short of an overall majority without the support of a significant number of the 250 senators.

The election results showed that Move Forward’s progressive agenda resonated with a public weary of nine years of military-controlled rule under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army commander seized power in a 2014 coup and returned as prime minister after a 2019 general election.

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But what made Move Forward popular with many voters was what alarmed royalist conservatives. The party pledged to reform many powerful institutions, including the monarchy and the military, which retain power and influence under a constitution written during Prayuth’s administration.

While the threats from Move Forward’s ideological foes are clear, what was less expected are the tensions between it and the biggest partner in its coalition, the Pheu Thai party.

Pheu Thai and its predecessor parties have won all national elections since 2001 until this past May. It is the latest in a string of parties linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006.

Chonlanan Srikaew

Leader of the Pheu Thai party Chonlanan Srikaew, left gestures with the leader of Move Forward Party Pita Limjaroenrat, in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 17, 2023.  (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Royalist power holders have harbored enmity toward Thaksin — a billionaire populist now in exile — for a long time. Prayuth’s 2014 coup ousted a government formed by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Move Forward and Pheu Thai have been squabbling over which will get the post of House speaker, which is supposed to be chosen by Parliament on Tuesday.

“The position of the House speaker is essential because he will determine the agenda of Parliament, and so therefore the degree of political transformation,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, a Thai studies scholar at the University of Wisconsin.

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The two parties announced a compromise after a meeting on Monday. The coalition will nominate Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, a veteran leader of the Prachachat Party, to be House speaker, and Move Forward and Pheu Thai will each have one deputy speaker. Pita said the decision was reached to strengthen unity among the coalition’s allies to support his bid to be prime minister.

Attachak Sattayanurak, a professor of history at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand, suggested that the apparent distrust between the two parties is potentially the biggest threat to Pita’s possible prime ministership.

Pheu Thai leaders, almost as a matter of pride, could not be seen as ceding too much to their Move Forward partner, he said.

“The feelings of people in the Pheu Thai party, that it used to be a heavyweight, that had won many elections and was able to be an agenda setter,” drove many of them to insist that Move Forward make the speaker’s post part of Pheu Thai’s share of the pie, he said.

However, if Pheu Thai fails to show an unbreakable bond with Move Forward, it “reduces the power of the group that calls itself a democracy bloc” and gives the senators and their conservative allies “more grounds not to choose Pita,” Attachak said.

Aside from Move Forward’s problems with the Senate and Pheu Thai, there are serious fears that Pita and his party will be blocked by legal challenges, a fate that has brought down previous parties that ran afoul of the conservative establishment.

Several Thaksin-backed governments and a party that was Move Forward’s predecessor were victims of rulings by the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission, both nominally independent agencies that are often seen as favoring the ruling elite, along with the Constitutional Court.

Pita has been accused of violating a constitutional prohibition on politicians holding shares in a media company. The media company is no longer operating, and Pita says the shares are part of his father’s estate and don’t belong to him. The prospect that he could be banned from politics and even jailed for what is widely seen at most as a minor technical violation has triggered fears that the political instability that has wracked Thailand on and off since 2006 could return with a vengeance.

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