Frenemy politics to be more crucial than ever before

What Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat said the other day may not be as significant as why he said it. While Pheu Thai may not like his statement in its totality, the biggest opposition party can be forgiven if it feels a little flattered.

Pita was careful with his words, apparently fearful of being perceived as being the one “in need”, not “being needed”. Pheu Thai, equipped with helpful electoral laws and surging popularity, is hoping to even better its 2011 success when it could practically pick anyone no matter how small to form a government. Move Forward, on the other hand, must be looking with consternation at the new way of calculating party list seats.

In the grand scheme of things, the national divide remains clear-cut and it seems Move Forward has little to worry about. It’s virtually impossible to conjure up a Pheu Thai-led coalition with the Democrats or Bhumjaithai Party in it. Also, a Pheu Thai government facing Move Forward as an opposition party is a scenario with very long odds, unless a juxtaposition of events makes it sensible for Seripisut Temiyavet’s Thai Liberal Party to be Pheu Thai’s only coalition partner.

However, the Pheu Thai-Move Forward alliance will be anything but smooth. Problems were probably brewing the minute Pheu Thai proposed the Bt600 daily minimum wage, although Pita had no choice but to ambiguously defend it. In effect, he was papering over potential problems by saying that high wages for unskilled workers were “not the only cause” of inflation, and that a big raise would be fine as long as there are supplementary measures to help small businesses.

Pita said Move Forward and Pheu Thai agreed to be allies because they shared key policies including the one regarding the Thai labour. The friendship and cooperation would continue, and differences would be properly dealt with, he promised.

Thailand’s election timeline explained

Before troublesome issues like Article 112 come to the fore and require definite stands from the two friends, the parties will have to navigate the complications of political “markets”. As everyone knows, both parties are wooing the same voting populace and, with the fading of the Democrats from Bangkok, may have to battle it out for the capital, where Move Forward (then Future Forward) did very well in 2019 but which signalled a major pro-Pheu Thai swing in this year gubernatorial and City Assembly elections.

Move Forward (then Future Forward) won 50 party list seats in the 2019 election, the most of all political parties. This sent the total number of MPs of the party to over 80, making it the third largest after Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharath. In that election, Pheu Thai did not get any party list seat because it won a large number of constituency seats already.

Pheu Thai won 61 party list seats in 2011. The electoral rule advantage behind that will be back in the upcoming election, pretty much at Move Forward’s expense. In short, Pheu Thai can be bigger and Move Forward smaller, stretching the two parties’ “gap”. While Pheu Thai will fight for a landslide, Move Forward will really have to struggle for many seats, and come up against Pheu Thai in most cases.

So, the alliance will be tested early, before the minimum wage and Article 112 come into play.Good news for Move Forward and Pheu Thai is that similar frenemy problems are happening on both halves of the ideological polarization.

What will Palang Pracharath do regarding Prayut Chan-o-cha? Can Move Forward, the “fighter”, tolerate Pheu Thai’s “Boxer” strategy in the ideological campaign? Thailand’s political course now depends heavily on how hostile one’s friends will be toward the utmost rival and how proclaimed alliances can hold against all odds.

A lot of the complications will have to do with Thaksin Shinawatra and military “intervention” in politics. Pheu Thai and Move Forward have not been in unison over Thaksin and their supporters have even been accusing each other of being a salim” in disguise. This will make future legislative attempts to bring him home highly contentious.

In the government camp, defections take place virtually on a daily basis and the “realignment” does not look healthy for the friendship that has appeared fragile from the very beginning. Moreover, each ally’s real attitude toward Prayut, Prawit Wongsuwan and the military’s role in politics as a whole is murky to say the least. Fighting for the same market will also upset the government alliance as much as it does the other side.

Most likely, ideological divide will still be the decisive factor when push comes to shove. Frenemy politics, however, will be more frequent and conspicuous. Welcome to a new political era where nobody can be entirely trusted yet everyone has to be pleased even more.

By Tulsathit Taptim


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