As the dust settles on the 2023 general election, minds have turned towards the task of building a coalition.
Before the election, Dr. Napon Jatusripitak and I had outlined three possible scenarios: 1) the status quo, where the conservative coalition assembled by Prayut in 2019 continues to rule, 2) an opposition landslide, where anti-regime parties sweep parliament and form their own government, and 3) a political crossover, where strange bedfellows like Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharath join forces to form a government.
It is now clear that an opposition victory has occurred, except in a way that few analysts (or even the most optimistic Move Forward supporters) would have predicted: the largest party in parliament will be Move Forward, followed closely by Pheu Thai. Yet the path towards turning that seats into a Move Forward-led government with Pita Limjaroenrat as prime minister is far from straightforward. In particular, given that he is still many votes away from winning any parliamentary vote, what could happen should a parliamentary deadlock ensue is worth considering.
Scenario 1: A Move Forward-led Progressive Government
The first possible coalition outcome is the one that Move Forward is currently working on assembling. Pita has now announced a prospective coalition of six parties: Move Forward, Pheu Thai, Thai Sang Thai, Prachachat, Seri Ruam Thai, and Pen Tham. Most of these parties were part of the opposition in the previous parliament; all are oriented as anti-regime parties. Together, this coalition would command 310 seats in parliament, a big majority in the lower house that ordinarily would easily allow Pita to become prime minister.
The key challenge that this coalition faces, however, is whether or not it will be able to earn the support of the Senate. Section 272 of the constitution states that the prime minister must be appointed with the support of more than one half of both houses of parliament. This means that Pita must receive the support of 376 MPs and senators. It is not sufficient for the Senate to abstain; 66 out of the 250 senators have to actively vote for Pita, assuming that none of the non-coalition MPs vote for him. That is a tall order, considering that all 250 senators voted for Prayut in 2019.
But can it happen? As Move Forward member Parit Watcharasindhu points out, 64 senators also voted previously to remove the power of the Senate to select the prime minister. If they adhered to the same principle that voted for Pita as prime minister, that would put the party tantalizingly close to power. Already, at least seven senators have said that they would be willing to cast their vote for Pita.
Another option would be for Move Forward to convince parties that it did not invite to the coalition to support Pita for prime minister, out of the principle that they should help nullify the power of the Senate. Bhumjaithai, a party with 70 seats that would automatically resolve Pita’s conundrum, has already ruled itself out of a Move Forward coalition due to the latter’s stance on the lese majeste law. Palang Pracharath, United Thai Nation and Democrats have all vowed to oppose amendment of the lèse-majesté law, as well; it remains to be seen whether they will follow Bhumjaithai’s lead. Meanwhile, Pita has refused to budge on this policy pledge.
This issue could also make several senators feel queasy about supporting Pita. Already, at least two senators have announced that Pita’s stance towards royal reform has made it impossible for them to support him.
Even as a Pita-led progressive government would be the outcome that most closely aligns with the election results, it also faces the most tortuous path to winning 376 votes in parliament. Whether or not popular pressure can sway pro-regime parties or the Senate remains to be seen.
Scenario 2: A Pheu Thai-led Political Crossover
If Pita is unable to convince either the conservative parties or a significant portion of the Senate to support him, the onus would fall on other parties to form a viable governing coalition. Although party leaders have said that they do not intend to compete with Move Forward in setting up a rival coalition, if the parliamentary deadlock proves impossible to break, Pheu Thai would not be breaking convention in seeking to assemble an alternative government.
There are several formulas for a potential Pheu Thai-led government. One would be to keep essentially the same coalition that Move Forward has assembled, but switch out Pita for one of Pheu Thai’s three prime ministerial candidates: Paethongtharn Shinawatra, Srettha Thavisin, or Chaikasem Nitisiri. But Move Forward’s presence in the coalition, even as a junior member, could present Pheu Thai with similar problems as a Pita-led government would.
The other option would be to ditch Move Forward entirely and go for an alternative coalition. Bhumjaithai and Chart Thai Pattana would almost certainly be open to working with a Pheu Thai prime minister. The trump card, however, is to be invite Palang Pracharath to the coalition. That means breaking Pheu Thai’s late promise to voters that it would not work with Prawit, but breaking an election pledge is nothing new in Thai politics. Such a move would provide this coalition with a lower house majority. Just as importantly, Prawit is likely capable of swaying a number of senators, which he played a role in appointing as chairman of the committee that selected the senators, to support a candidate of his choice. Indeed, one senator has said that he would rather vote for Paethongtharn over Pita.
Would Pheu Thai go for this route, if Move Forward fails to set up a government? It is difficult to say. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the second largest party having a go at setting up a government if the largest party fails. However, it would be a public relations disaster, after the party released a press statement several times that they will not seek to put together a rival coalition. Pheu Thai’s leaders will know, having just suffered a heavy blow at the election that dashed its dreams of a landslide, that building a government that puts Move Forward in the opposition would only drain Pheu Thai further of its popularity while putting its rival in pole position to win even more seats at the next election.
The road ahead is long, however; minds may shift as circumstances evolve. In any case, would an attempt to form a government after a parliamentary deadlock truly be considered an attempt to form a rival coalition?
Scenario 3: A Conservative Minority Government
The final, most unlikely, scenario that could occur is a conservative minority government. This would see all the current coalition parties joining hands together to form a government, with the prime minister being drawn from the two biggest parties from the current government, either Bhumjaithai or Palang Pracharath. With the help of the Senate, they can get through a parliamentary vote.
However, this option is extremely unlikely to happen and succeed for two three reasons. Firstly, several parties have promised that they would not support a minority government. Secondly, the psychological impact of an opposition landslide means that few of those parties, still dazed from their defeat, would dare put themselves forward for prime minister. And even more significantly, the Senate does not participate in a no-confidence vote. Thus, any minority government would fall very quickly, as the opposition would trigger a vote of no confidence that a minority coalition would be sure to lose. This route is a surefire way to early elections.
It should be noted that none of these three scenarios have yet taken into account possible judicial interventions. Pita could still be disqualified as an MP if he is found to be holding shares of a defunct media company, which could lead to a modification of the first scenario: a coalition that includes Move Forward but is led by a Pheu Thai prime minister, out of necessity. Other disqualifications can also occur that would alter the parliamentary calculus. With 60 days for the Electoral Commission to certify the elections, there is plenty of time left for election wrangling.