Thailand's Pheu Thai party joins with pro-military parties in coalition to form new government

Thailand’s Pheu Thai party joins with pro-military parties in coalition to form new government

BANGKOK — Thailand’s populist Pheu Thai party said Monday it will form a new 11-party coalition government that includes two pro-military parties in a move that could end the three-month political stalemate that has seized Thailand since elections in May.

The development, which officials said was likely to see real estate tycoon and Pheu Thai nominee Srettha Thavisin named as the country’s new leader, marks the latest twist in what has been a difficult-to-control roller coaster of Thai politics over the past two decades.

Despite having finished second in the May elections, Pheu Thai emerged as the victor Tuesday by joining forces with key pro-military partners affiliated with outgoing Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha — a former Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army who led a coup that ruled Thailand by military junta from 2014 to 2019.

The years since have been tumultuous.

Pheu Thai received a chance to form the new government after members of Thailand’s conservative unelected Senate repeatedly blocked the surprise winner of the May election, the progressive Move Forward Party. Both houses of Parliament vote together for the prime minister under the current military-implemented constitution, in an arrangement designed to protect conservative military-backed rule.

Since the turn of the century, Thailand‘s governments have been rattling between peaks of shaky democratic rule and lows of authoritarian military coups, reflecting deep divisions in Thai society and politics.

The latest swerve in the Buddhist-majority nation came in May, when 42-year-old former business entrepreneur Pita Limjaroenrat and his Move Forward Party finished first in the elections, vowing to end the military’s decade-long hold on power and challenging the authority and privileges Thailand’s once-untouchable monarchy.

But Mr. Pita and Move Forward now appear destined to be once again on the outside looking in, with military-linked parties having joined with Pheu Thai to give it control of the government.

Pheu Thai announced Monday that its coalition includes two military-backed parties — Palang Pracharath with 40 seats in Thai parliament, and United Thai Nation with 36 seats.

The move found Pheu Thai heavily criticized by some of its supporters for backtracking on a pre-election pledge not to join hands with pro-military parties.

Pheu Thai is the latest in a string of parties affiliated with ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist who was ousted by a 2006 military coup. The coup triggered years of upheaval and division that pitted a mostly poor, rural majority in the north that supports Mr. Thaksin, claiming he is Thailand’s rightful leader against royalists, the military and their urban backers.

With that as a backdrop, the May election set in motion a stalemate that saw Thailand’s Constitutional Court effectively clear the way last week for Parliament to reject Mr. Pita’s proposed eight-party coalition, which could never win enough votes under the military regime-written constitution that seemed specifically drafted to frustrate the forces of change.

With that as a backdrop, the billionaire Mr. Srettha, who is now on track to emerge as prime minister, has sought to appeal to the Thai masses in recent days.

“My enemy is poverty and inequality,” he said in a Facebook video on Friday. “My goal is to make every Thai person’s life better.”

It remains to be seen whether he can come through on the promise.

Mr. Srettha and Pheu Thai left the Move Forward party out of the newly proposed ruling coalition, essentially arguing that the party‘s call to reform the royal defamation law made it impossible for it to ever assemble a workable majority.

Military influence

Ahead of Tuesday’s developments, many saw it as a virtual certainty that whatever coalition emerged would require buy-in from parties aligned with the outgoing, unpopular governments tied to departing Prime Minister Chan-ocha.

Despite the wave of support reformist and civilian parties enjoyed in the spring election, analysts say, the military will continue to play a major political role going forward in Thailand.

“The military will continue to have substantial powers in areas important to it,” former Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said in a recent interview.

The new prime minister will still be laboring under the constitution Mr. Prayuth helped push through that bolstered military influence and all but guarantees a conservative-dominated Senate that can vet candidates, appointments and legislation.

Despite the domestic uncertainty, Bangkok’s attempts to balance its security, economic and diplomatic relations with the U.S. and China are expected to remain relatively unchanged.

The Pentagon’s relations with senior Thai military officers — including those in the outgoing ruling administration — are close, a legacy of the Vietnam War era when the U.S. used Thai territory for air bases to bomb neighboring Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and “rest and recreation” from those battlefields.

The Pentagon now stages several annual military exercises with Thai forces, including the Cobra Gold drills on Thailand‘s territory, the largest multilateral military exercise in Asia.

Balancing act

But Bangkok’s military links with Washington are also being judged in the aftermath of the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan, and with concern over the U.S.-China confrontation escalating in the South China Sea.

“Thailand depends on the United States for its overall security concerns,” Kasit Piromya, another former foreign minister, said in an interview. “Thailand is a treaty ally of the United States, but has strong economic ties with China.”

In a balancing act that is playing out across East Asia, China’s wealth, technology, weapons and investment dollars are increasingly attractive to Thailand.

For example, under the surface of the usually calm Gulf of Thailand, the U.S. and China appear to be nudging each other for access.

While the U.S. teaches the Thai navy to operate submarines off southwest Thailand in the Andaman Sea, Thailand‘s navy is considering the purchase of three subs from China, which claims areas of the South China Sea which can be accessed from the shallow gulf.

“Particularly oil and food are imported via ship, so China needs to alleviate potential shortages of these commodities if the U.S. should ever decide to enact a full or partial blockade of major shipping lines,” columnist Ralph Schoelhammer said in the Belgium-based Brussels Signal last week.

China is providing Thailand with export agricultural markets, upgraded trains, Huawei telecommunications, a steady stream of free-spending tourists, and diplomatic support without publicly criticizing Bangkok’s human rights — contrary to Washington’s frequent complaints.

The military insists its tough rule and the new constitution prevented Thailand from degenerating into corruption and violent protests against what many saw as a squabbling, ineffective civilian political class here.

“The current constitution places the military’s role as part of the country’s development, meaning that both its budget and its influence, as well as its political power, continue to exert influence,” Rangsit University political science lecturer Wanwichit Boonprong said in a recent interview, predicting the government is unlikely to embrace ambitious plans for reform.

“I am confident that Srettha will not interfere with the appointment of high-ranking military officers, and the budget for the purchase of weapons will definitely be supported by his government,” Mr. Wanwichit said.

Softer touch

Mr. Srettha and the PTP hope a softer approach will win support in the Senate that Mr. Pita and the Move Forward party could never achieve, while easing the concerns of the military establishment and royalists.

“Pheu Thai has made a deal with arch-royalist political parties to form a coalition,” Paul Chambers, a Naresuan University lecturer on Southeast Asian affairs, said in an interview ahead of Tuesday’s developments. “The senior brass are not answerable to Srettha. He cannot fire them. They can always either ignore him or stage a coup against him.”

His personal and business background could be a help straddling Thailand‘s many divides: Mr. Srettha studied economics at the University of Massachusetts and earned an MBA from Claremont Graduate University in California.

“He should be able to understand the way of thinking and the context of American capitalism well,” Mr. Wanwichit said. “As he is of Chinese descent, he has a good understanding of Eastern philosophy and ways of thinking.”

But Mr. Srettha may face problems in the Senate going forward because his Pheu Thai party is run by the Shinawatra family, leading players in the civilian government that were targeted after the military’s 2006 and 2014 coups. Both coups were justified by the generals as the only way to stop alleged corruption by the Shinawatras, which the family denied.

Supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled leader of the political family who has long clashed with the military establishments, staged street demonstrations earlier this month over reports that Mr. Srettha‘s coalition included military-backed parties from the outgoing administration.

In an unexpected move, Mr. Srettha‘s proposed coalition includes United Thai Nation (UTN), which was led by Prime Minister Prayuth. The caretaker prime minister had announced he was leaving politics after his new party fared poorly in the May vote, winning just 36 seats.

Future protests against the military’s domination may be subdued, meanwhile, because of recent prison sentences meted out to demonstrators in clashes with police during the past few years.

“I don’t believe there will be a large-scale rally because there is no leader, because of what happened to the leaders,” Mr. Wanwichit said. “They are all [being] prosecuted for criminal offenses and imprisoned, affecting the ongoing protest activities, depriving the power of continuity that is important,” he said.

• Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.