At first glance, the Thai election winner Move Forward Party (MFP) and the runner-up Pheu Thai Party (PTP) appear to be getting along well. The two prospective coalition partners have consistently portrayed themselves as a force for democracy, united in their desire to overthrow the “dictatorial” conservative bloc headed by Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha. But, beneath the friendly demeanor, there are deep-seated tensions and mistrust. Over the past few weeks, the MFP-PTP rift has increasingly manifested in the form of a public spat, with both sides competing to secure the top post in the legislative branch – that of house speaker.
To be sure, both parties have legitimate reasons for wanting to hold the position. The victorious MFP, which won the most seats at the May 14 election – 151 out of 500 seats in the House of Representatives – contends that its candidate must be the house speaker to facilitate the smooth implementation of “progressive” new laws. The MFP apparently has 45 proposed bills – 11 political bills, eight on rights and liberty, eight on land reform, six on bureaucratic reform, four on public service, four on the economy, and two each on environmental and labor issues – ready to be submitted as soon as the parliament reconvenes in early July.
Among them are the MFP’s flagship bills to amend the lese-majeste law, to scrap mandatory conscription, and dissolve the Internal Security Operations Command, in charge of all dimensions of domestic security, to decentralize governance, and to heavily tax the rich. These changes would likely have profound impacts on Thailand’s socio-political and economic stability and, against the backdrop of rising global uncertainties, they would almost certainly be brushed off by a house speaker whose loyalty to the MFP cause is questionable.
The populist PTP, which has long played a major role in Thai politics, disagrees with the MFP’s stance. Obviously wanting to set the rules of the game and keep the rising star MFP in check, PTP argues that the “winner-takes-all” model is inappropriate because MFP did not win the election decisively. Indeed, PTP won just 10 seats less than the MFP and is seen as a more qualified party due to its past experience in managing House meetings. The PTP has already agreed, in principle, to back MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat as Thailand’s new prime minister and therefore it is only fair that PTP gets the house speaker post.
Last week, as it became clear that MFP would not bend the knee, PTP’s deputy leader Phumtham Wechayachai started talking about giving up on the house speaker post and instead taking the two deputy house speaker posts. The sudden shift in PTP’s tone immediately triggered an uproar among its members. A seminar was held on June 21 to discuss this matter and reportedly up to 90 percent of participating PTP MPs expressed disapproval of the party’s softened stance. Veteran PTP politician Adisorn Piangket, for instance, stressed that PTP “is not a branch of the MFP.”
PTP’s internal drama could arguably be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, strong negative reactions from PTP members reflect serious divisions and a lack of communication within the party. On the other hand, PTP’s seeming withdrawal from the house speaker race in an effort to break the deadlock is a well-calculated move to paint MFP as utterly selfish and PTP as the true coalition holder. Besides, if the MFP-led coalition fails to perform, the blame would be placed largely on MFP and not PTP.
Deep down, PTP executives probably foresee the inevitable demise of the MFP-led coalition. MFP is, after all, walking an obstacle-filled path and has a low likelihood of securing enough support from the unelected 250-seat Senate to form a government. The PTP, in contrast, has options to join forces with conservative parties in the Prayut administration, most notably Bhumjaithai (71 seats) and the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party (40 seats). Such a scenario, as observed by Punchada Sirivunnabood in her recently published Diplomat article, means that PTP could lose support from its pro-democracy voters, who could then vote overwhelmingly for MFP in Thailand’s next election. Yet, at the same time, it makes sense to think that MFP’s failure to lead a functioning government and produce tangible results could result in its downfall.
Developments surrounding Thailand’s new house speaker are well worth watching, considering that they have big implications for the future of the MFP-PTP alliance and Thai politics more broadly. With the first parliamentary session scheduled for July 3, and the selection of the house speaker set to take place within the first 10 days of the parliamentary session, time is running out for the PTP to make its final call. Even if a final party decision is reached, PTP MPs may not vote along party lines. Unlike the selection process for the prime minister, where the names of all MPs and their chosen prime ministerial candidates are disclosed, the voting for the house speaker is held by secret ballot, thus indicating a high degree of unpredictability.