Thai Poll Winner Faces Dilemma Over Support for Tycoon’s PM Bid

Move Forward Party, the surprise winner in Thailand’s May election, is in a quandary over whether to back or oppose a former ally’s candidate for prime minister after its own leader was rejected in his bids for the position.

(Bloomberg) — Move Forward Party, the surprise winner in Thailand’s May election, is in a quandary over whether to back or oppose a former ally’s candidate for prime minister after its own leader was rejected in his bids for the position.

A new coalition that’s being formed by Pheu Thai Party plans to nominate property tycoon Srettha Thavisin as its choice for prime minister. Voting against Srettha risks pushing Pheu Thai toward conservative adversaries and pro-royalist senators, who thwarted Move Forward’s efforts to form a government under Pita Limjaroenrat.

Move Forward’s lawmakers are gauging the mood among its supporters — largely urban and young voters — to decide its strategy. While Pita has said the party is in no hurry to decide, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a co-founder of disbanded predecessor Future Forward Party, said Move Forward should unequivocally state its resolve to sit in the opposition and rule out support for Pheu Thai’s coalition.

“Move Forward will likely upset many of its supporters if they vote for a Pheu Thai premier candidate who will lead a reconciliation pact with conservatives,” said Peter Mumford, Southeast Asia practice head at consultancy Eurasia Group. 

A policy paralysis has hurt investor confidence in Thailand, which has been under a caretaker government since March with no major powers. Political parties are now under pressure to end the post-election stalemate and tackle economic issues such as a fragile economic recovery, high household debt and dwindling disposable income.

Move Forward was the frontrunner to run the government in the weeks after the May 14 election and now risks being relegated to the opposition, largely due to its unwillingness to back down from a pledge to amend royal insult laws and other platforms that may hurt pro-military business elites.

Pheu Thai has made an outreach for support and calls for reconciliation among political parties, citing the best interests for the nation. Move Forward’s decision could potentially determine the shape of Pheu Thai’s coalition as pro-military parties and senators have yet to back the alliance. 

READ: Pheu Thai Courts Former Ally for Support as It Builds New Bloc

Pheu Thai’s new alliance is well short of the majority in the two chambers of parliament, which together have 750 members and will decide who becomes the prime minister. The coalition had the support of 238 lawmakers as of Thursday, 13 short of the majority in the elected House of Representatives. Move Forward’s 151 lawmakers can effectively seal Srettha’s win even without the support of the senators or military-aligned groups.

Pheu Thai, backed by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s family, is pushing for what it calls a reconciliatory government with the support of parties from across the ideological divide. The party said it’s time to put behind decades of color-coded politics — red for Shinawatra supporters and yellow for their royalist opponents — and focus on measures to revive the economy.

Thaksin’s plan to return to Thailand from 15 years of self-imposed exile is also seen weighing on Pheu Thai’s government formation. It potentially raises the necessity to broker deals with military-backed parties who represent the establishment to ensure his safe homecoming and the likelihood of receiving a royal pardon, said Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

That too leaves Pheu Thai in a dilemma as it needs to decide if it should align with the military-affiliated parties despite having other options, Napon said. 

“Pheu Thai is not counting on Move Forward’s support and seems to have ventured quite far down the ‘dark side’ already,” said Napon. “The actual challenge for Pheu Thai lies in the fact that certain options might significantly damage its reputation as a pro-democracy party, even if they lead it to power, or grant Thaksin a safe passage home.” 

Though Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy is poised to expand more than 3% this year due to a rebound in tourism and private consumption, it faces headwinds from sluggish global demand for its goods and rising borrowing costs. Investors are also concerned the delay in forming a government may push back state budget approvals and public spending.

Srettha sees the formation of a government at the earliest as a solution to urgent economic problems facing Thailand, and doesn’t rule out an alliance with military-backed parties. 

“We need to be realistic,” he told reporters late on Friday. “We need a new government. To solve Thailand’s problems, it’s imperative that Pheu Thai leads the government.” 

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