Thailand's Parliament is about to pick a new prime minister — and a generation's hopes are at stake

Thailand's Parliament is about to pick a new prime minister — and a generation's hopes are at stake

Important Points

They are now confronted by the "new" Speaker of Thailand's House of Representatives, 79-year old Wan Muhamad Noor Matha. He is considered a member of an older generation.

On Thursday, Thailand's parliament will elect a new premier. The young and urban population of the country will soon find out if their support for an opposition progressive party in May's election will translate to real power.

They were euphoric about the stunning victory of the party, and prepared themselves for democratic reform. They are now faced with the sight of Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, 79 years old and considered to be a member of Thailand's "old guard", as the new speaker of the House of Representatives.

After nine years of military dictatorship, the Move Forward Party, led by Harvard-educated Pita Limjaroenrat, had won an unprecedented majority in the Parliament. However, this was not enough for the party's own candidates to be elected, so it formed a coalition with other seven parties.

Move Forward campaigned for an ambitious reform agenda that targeted the country's military, monarchy and monopolies. These aims essentially continued the goals of the student protests that took place more than two year ago. They were triggered after the dissolution of a previous entity of Move Forward, which was highly critical to outgoing Prime Minister Prayut Chau-o-cha. He is a former military officer who seized control in a coup in 2014 and changed the Thai Constitution in 2017

The narrow majority of its party has left it vulnerable to the manipulations of the institutions that it seeks to reform. It also leaves open the possibility of interlocking patronage systems, which remain in place despite the removal of many influential business families during this election. Wan Noor was chosen as a compromise candidate by Move Forward after Pheu Thai, the second-placed party, had complained about Move Forward's selection. But that wasn't even the start.

Syetarn Hanakul, senior analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said that "the choice of Mr Wan Muhamad Noor Matha to be house speaker shows the Pheu Thai Party's significant leverage over Move Forward Party."

It puts the Pheu Thai Party into an advantageous position, if Mr Pita does not get enough votes from senators to support him as Prime Minister.

Power Barriers

It's still not clear whether Limjaroenrat, who is the current Thai prime minister, will be able to lead the country when the National Assembly combines to vote on Thursday for the next premier. This could be just the beginning of a long process.

Limjaroenrat requires 376 votes in order to become Prime Minister. Limjaroenrat has 312 votes from his coalition of eight parties in the lower house of 500 seats, but he still needs 64 votes from the 250 members of the Senate. The Senate was appointed by the military royalists after the coup of 2014.

This is not a guarantee, since Move Forward has stated that one of its goals is to amend Thailand’s lese-majeste laws which criminalizes criticizing King Maha Vajiralongkorn or other members of his royal family.

In June, Thai Senator Prapanth Koommee said that it was not his job to listen. Even if you received 100 million votes, if you are not suitable or I do not like you, I would still reject you.

Nomura has assigned a 60% probability that Pheu Thailand -- and not Move Forward -- will be the leader of the coalition government following the approval of Wan Noor last week as the speaker of the House.

Hansakul of EIU said that neither choice is preferred by the Thai establishment. She said that Pheu Thai is less of a concern to the Thai establishment than the other two parties, as it doesn't have a reform agenda for the Thai monarchy or military.

Limjaroenrat may also be disqualified due to a complaint filed against him for his ownership of a media company, which is illegal in Thailand.

Hansakul of EIU says that a government led Limjaroenrat’s Move Forward could be a problem for the monopolies within the alcoholic beverages and energy sectors, as the party is aiming to level the field. Business leaders have also resisted a plan that would significantly increase the minimum wage.

A Move Forward-led coalition will still face major obstacles, even if Limjaroenrat is able to secure the role of prime minister. The Senate has a substantial amount of veto power, and Pheu Thai controls a large share in the coalition.

"Move Forward may not have been able to secure their preferred ministerial positions, as shown by the failure of its choice to be appointed House Speaker," said Napon Jatsuripitak, visiting fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, in Singapore.

Generational change

He reminded hundreds of supporters at a rally held in central Bangkok on Sunday that "we are all the people's representatives."

If Move Forward and Limjaroenrat are not allowed to lead the new government, there may be new protests.

After the May elections, Thitinan Phongsudhirak (Professor of Politics and International Relations at Chulalongkorn University) told CNBC that Move Forward's unexpected win was "a profound and earth-shattering result for Thai political history over the past two decades", as the Thai people had spoken up for reform and change.

The victory of the party was seen as a departure from the populist appeals of Thaksin, the former prime minister and tycoon who had gone into self-imposed seclusion in 2008 to avoid jail time for abuse of authority following the military coup which overthrew his government two year earlier.

The courts have disbanded several of his previous party vehicles, but Move Forward has emerged at this election to show his declining influence with the younger generation who do not know his biography.


Professor: Thai people have called for reform and change in the election

Wan Noor, the new speaker, could be considered a member of this old guard. He's been a part of nine parties including Pheu Thai and its predecessor Thai Rak Thai. Wan Noor was also a house speaker under three prime ministers in the 1990s. Most recently, he was associated with the Prachachat Party.

"This new group wants structural changes that Thaksin can't provide." He is always trying to reconcile himself with the old money. He still courts the king for his right to return," Pavin Chachavalpongpun said, an associate professor of politics at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

He added that "the issue of monarchy is the core of Thai politics today." According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, about 250 of the 1,914 cases related to the 2020 protests fell under the lese majeste law. Many minors were involved in these cases.

Limjaroenrat’s party, despite the opposition of the old guard and the royalist military regime, can still count on 14 million Thai voters to support its ambitions.

Jatusripitak, ISEAS Yusof Ishak, said that if pro-democracy movements don't lose momentum, support for the party is likely to persist even if courts disqualify either the party or the leader.

Move Forward could also be more effective as an opposition tool for the moment.

Jatusripitak, ISEAS Yusof Ishak, said that political parties in Thailand are often ephemeral. They lack lasting organizational roots on the local level, and they are susceptible to being dissolved by the courts.

He added that "from this perspective, the transformation [of the Move Forward] into a movement based political party in 2020-2021 following the prodemocracy campaigns is a strategy adaptation that should keep the support for the Party alive for the moment."