15 July 2024

Amid post-election shocks and Move Forward’s euphoria, the Pheu Thai Party looked all but dead and buried immediately after the May 14 election. It was a peculiar political mishap, though, because Pheu Thai still won 141 seats and as of now will still be able to be the second biggest party in a Pita government if it chooses to.

The difference now is that playing the second fiddle to Move Forward is no longer Pheu Thai’s only option. Much has to do with the parliamentary numbers generated by the May election. A lot has to do with Pheu Thai starting to realise that. The rest has to do with Move Forward itself.

Things have changed significantly after about one month and a half. Days after the election, Pheu Thai was under immense pressure to support Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat because all of the democratic logic demanded so. Take away Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been softly criticised by Move Forward, the two parties share virtually the same thinking, albeit with different levels of seriousness, aggression and extremism. There was no reason or justification why Pheu Thai should not back Pita.

Now, what Move Forward has done since May 14 comes in. A victory parade has been followed by comments, activities or announcements that irritate or upset the conservatives. A viral clip of a female political leader deeply associated with Move Forward pretending to call a late Khana Ratsadon hero saying “We are making it” is not helping Move Forward’s difficult path.

Doubts that made Prayut Chan-o-cha’s party win the third biggest number of popular votes (which, of course, was far away from those of Move Forward and Pheu Thai respectively) despite it being brand new and his bruised image have grown considerably. All of a sudden, the pressure on Pheu Thai to guard Pita at any cost is not as strong as before.

Pheu Thai concedes House speakership, promises to stick with Move Forward

The slight change of political environment might not have helped Pheu Thai that much, given the two parties’ ideological fan base, but their close parliamentary numbers give Pheu Thai extra bargaining power. Pheu Thai’s number means it can realistically isolate Move Forward even when Prayut’s party is taken out of the equation.

A coalition comprising Pheu Thai, Palang Pracharath, Bhumjaithai, and Democrats would command 277 MPs or so, becoming the House of Representatives majority. With the Senate’s blessing, the group’s prime ministerial nominee will sail through. Without the Senate’s backing, the group would be strong enough as a government if the opposition launches a censure.

That would be Pheu Thai’s shortcut, but it can play it patiently, too. By that, it can help give birth to a Pita government and see what happens. Obviously, although Pheu Thai is the second biggest party, it will want to wrap Move Forward around its finger, starting with Thaksin’s promised return to Thailand.

How the new prime minister deals with Thaksin’s homecoming will be closely watched, especially if that prime minister is Pita. With Pheu Thai supporting Pita, the Move Forward leader cannot be too tough. With the need to guard Move Forward’s image, he cannot be too soft. Pita the prime minister would need to find a middle ground, whose whereabouts nobody knows.

Assuming Pheu Thai-backed Prime Minister Pita survives the Thaksin deathtrap, he will have to navigate other minefields. Move Forward is packed with legislative agendas that could either irk its ties with Pheu Thai or increase the latter’s bargaining power.

Censure votes can be explosive as well. To protect Move Forward’s image, the biggest party cannot deal with the opposition’s allegations against ministers the way previous government parties did. And if Move Forward Cabinet members are targeted, Pheu Thai’s political leverage could go through the roof.

Move Forward is a child-prodigy football player. Some of those players proceed to become big, successful stars on the field but many others crash and burn because they can’t handle a drastically-changing environment. Pheu Thai was there before and is having its own soul-searching. Leverage keeps changing hands between the two parties, one learning as it goes while trying to be different the same time and the other exhausting past lessons hoping they could be useful.

When they look back one day, the House speakership tussle could be something to laugh about, because it is so trivial. Pheu Thai may be able to laugh louder, because the two most possible scenarios both have the party in the government, which would collapse in a heap if it walks away. Whether Move Forward will have laughed bitterly or wholeheartedly is more unpredictable.

By Tulsathit Taptim