Thailand's populist Pheu Thai party announced Monday that it will form a coalition with a party from the outgoing military-backed administration to try to end nearly three months of political deadlock after the progressive party that won national elections was excluded from the formation of a new government.
Thailand has struggled to break the impasse and select a new leader after the progressive Move Forward Party became the surprise winner of the May elections but was blocked by the conservative elite from taking power.
Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat had assembled an eight-party coalition with 312 seats in the 500-member lower house. But under Thailand's military-enacted constitution, a new prime minister must receive a majority in a vote by both the elected House and 250-member appointed Senate, selected by a previous military government. Pita’s initial bid last month fell short by more than 50 votes, largely because only 13 senators backed him. He was barred from a second attempt the following week when Parliament voted that he could not be nominated again.
Members of the Senate said they opposed Pita because of his party’s call for the reform of a law that makes it illegal to defame Thailand’s royal family. Critics say the law, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, has been abused as a political weapon. The Senate’s members, like the army, see themselves as guardians of traditional royalist values.
Pheu Thai, the second biggest party in the eight-party coalition, took over the lead role in forming a government after Move Forward’s two failed attempts. It said last Wednesday that Move Forward had been excluded from the coalition because its platform to reform the royal defamation law made it impossible to rally enough support from other parties and the Senate.
Pheu Thai on Monday said it will try to form a government with the Bhumjaithai Party, which finished third in the election with 71 seats in the lower house. Together with Pheu Thai's 141 seats, the two parties hold 212 seats.
Bhumjaithai, which is known for cutting deals with parties on both sides of the political divide, was part of the outgoing military-backed coalition government of Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army chief toppled a Pheu Thai government in a coup in 2014 and returned as prime minister after 2019 elections. Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul serves as deputy prime minister and minister of public health in Prayuth’s administration.
Anutin’s most prominent legacy as health minister is removing marijuana from the country’s narcotics list, leading to an explosion of shops selling cannabis around the country.
Anutin said at a news conference with Pheu Thai on Monday that Bhumjaithat has agreed to join the coalition under the conditions that the royal defamation law will not be amended, and that Move Forward will not be a part of the government.
Chonlanan Srikaew, Pheu Thai’s leader, said the two parties will invite other parties this week to join them in forming a government.
“We need support from all sides because the problems that the country and the people are facing right now are severe. The longer the delay is, the more damage it will cause,” Chonlanan read from a joint statement by the two parties.
Chonlanan said a Pheu Thai-led government will propose a new draft constitution because the current charter enacted after the 2014 military coup is the main factor causing the current political crisis and a reason why the coalition with Move Forward failed.
A plan by Parliament to vote for a new leader last Friday was derailed after the Constitutional Court said a day earlier that it needs more time to deliberate on whether to accept a petition from the state ombudsman on the legality of Parliament’s earlier vote to block Pita’s renomination, and will meet again Aug. 16 to decide on the matter. The House speaker then postponed the vote pending the court’s decision, since the court could order the vote to be suspended until it issues a ruling.
Pheu Thai is the latest in a string of parties affiliated with ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist who was ousted in a 2006 military coup. Thaksin has said he plans to return to the country in the coming weeks following years of self-imposed exile to escape a prison term in several criminal cases which he has decried as politically motivated.
Although Bhumjaithai and Pheu Thai were on opposite sides of the political divide during the last government, Anutin said he never said that the two parties could not work together and called for a compromise.
“Now it’s the time that the country needs a government. The country needs to move on, so we have to finish all those disputes,” he said. “You don’t want to see the country continuing in factions like this. If there’s a chance, we can unite together and move on. We have to do it for the sake of our country and the people.”