• World
  • Thailand

More Than a Month After Thailand’s Election, We Still Don’t Know Who Will Lead the Country. Here Are All the Ways It Could Go

9 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Thailand’s National Assembly will begin its first of potentially several prolonged rounds of voting to select the next Prime Minister on July 13, more than eight weeks after nationwide elections appeared to turn a new chapter in the country’s politics from nearly a decade of junta control.

The election results were widely seen as a repudiation of the military government that has ruled since 2014 after seizing power in a coup. But for the fresh class of parliament members that took their seats in Bangkok on Monday, the first order of business—to form a new government—is far from straightforward.

Only the seats in the lower house, which is made up of 500 representatives, were up for election in May. Meanwhile, the selection of the next Prime Minister depends also on the votes of the upper house, made up of 250 junta-appointed senators, leaving what comes next very uncertain.

Here’s what to know—and all the ways it could play out.

What were the results of the election and who are the major players?

The Move Forward Party, a progressive opposition party led by 42-year-old Harvard grad and former Grab executive Pita Limjaroenrat, emerged from the election with 151 seats won: the most of any party but not enough for a majority. Move Forward campaigned on an ambitious platform promising to curb the influence and power of the military and the monarchy over the nation. It also supported same-sex marriage and social welfare programs.

Widely expected to top the polls but instead coming closely behind Move Forward with 141 seats won was Pheu Thai, a populist opposition party rooted in nostalgia for the past rule of former Prime Minister Thaskin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and whose younger sister became Prime Minister in 2011 but was ousted in 2014. Thaskin’s 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra was one of three Pheu Thai candidates for Prime Minister this year.

The Bhumjaithai Party, a conservative party that had aligned with the military-backed coalition government after the 2019 election, came in third with 71 seats. Anutin Charnvirakul, the current Health Minister and the champion of the country’s recent cannabis legalization, is the party’s Prime Minister candidate.

The junta-aligned parties of Palang Pracharath and United Thai Nation—represented by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who has led Thailand since the 2014 coup—won just 40 and 36 seats, respectively.

Scenario 1: Move Forward’s coalition alliance forms the government, and Pita becomes Prime Minister

After the election, Move Forward and Pheu Thai came together with six other parties to form a 312-seat coalition alliance. Confident in the public mandate shown by the election, Pita told reporters last week that he has “enough” Senate support to become Prime Minister, but whether that’s true remains to be seen.

There are also lingering doubts over whether Pita will even be eligible to become Prime Minister.

Pita has been battling a controversy, which threatens to upend his candidacy for the premiership, over shares he allegedly inherited in a defunct broadcaster. Local electoral laws forbid those owning media shares from being elected to the House of Representatives.

Read More: What to Know About the Controversy That Could Keep Thailand’s Progressive Party Leader From Taking Office

The case bears uncanny resemblance to the dissolution of Future Forward, Move Forward’s predecessor, in 2019. Future Forward’s leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who was the Prime Minister nominee of an anti-junta coalition at the time, was disqualified after the Constitutional Court ruled that he held shares in a media company.

Other political opponents of the junta have suffered similar fates—the Thai Rak Thai Party, founded by former Prime Minister Thaksin, was dissolved in 2007 after the Constitutional Court found it guilty of breaking election laws.

“Past history says opposition political parties who have made headway, whether that be Thai Rak Thai, whether that be Future Forward … they were quickly disbanded by the constitutional court,” Mark S. Cogan, an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Japan’s Kansai Gaidai University, tells TIME. “[Move Forward] bears the same risks as all the other past failed, vanquished political parties in the country.”

Scenario 2: Pita is sidelined or disqualified, and Pheu Thai takes the lead in the same coalition

The two leading opposition parties, Move Forward and Pheu Thai, have emphasized unity since the election ended, though there have been reports of cracks in their alliance as each side jostles for power in whatever government is ultimately formed. For weeks, the two parties were locked in negotiations over the lower house speakership, for which the vote is set to take place on Tuesday. The role is seen as crucial to the appointment of the Prime Minister, since the speaker controls the agenda of House sessions—which means it can influence the timeline of Prime Minister votes.

In a show of compromise and “unity,” late Monday night after the opening session of the new parliament, the eight-party coalition alliance announced that it would endorse Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, a veteran Thai politician of the Prachachart Party, for House Speaker.

Still, getting Senate support looks to be a tough battle for Pita, whose vehemently anti-junta party has vowed not to work with the military-aligned Palang Pracharath and United Thai Nation parties. Move Forward has also championed the amendment of Section 112, a controversial lese-majeste law criticized by pro-democracy activists but upheld by the junta and royalists, including Move Forward’s coalition partner Pheu Thai.

“There’s a strong likelihood that Pita will not receive enough support to be approved as Prime Minister, and that’s mostly due to the military-appointed Senate,” Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, tells TIME.

Should Pita fail to become Prime Minister, whether by falling short of the necessary votes or by being disqualified by the Election Commission, the situation would be “desirable” for Pheu Thai, Katsuyuki Takahashi, a professor at the College of ASEAN Community Studies in Thailand’s Naresuan University, tells TIME.

“If Pita is disqualified, no [prime minister] candidate exists in the Move Forward Party,” Takahashi says. “The Pheu Thai Party has three candidates.”

Scenario 3: Pheu Thai forms a coalition government with conservatives and without Move Forward

While Move Forward has from the outset positioned itself as anti-junta and pro-reform of the monarchy, the populist Pheu Thai has demonstrated more ambiguity in its political alignment. Some local commentators have speculated that Pheu Thai may even abandon Move Forward’s coalition alliance and join forces with parties more favorable to the military and the monarchy in order to gain the ultimate edge.

But such a move could be risky and shortsighted. According to Cogan, partnering with conservative forces would spell doom for the credibility of Pheu Thai among a significant segment of its supporters, many of whom represented the pro-Thaksin red shirts during violent clashes against yellow-clad monarchists a decade ago.

“That is like making a deal with the devil,” says Cogan. “I can’t imagine these diehard red-shirts, diehard Thaksin supporters, being forced to make a coalition with the very same people who overthrew the Thaksin government in the first place. What credibility would you have with your own constituents, with your own supporters?”

A Pheu Thai betrayal may also not be the worst outcome for Move Forward, Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, tells TIME, as it would leave the leading opposition party well-placed to capture even more support in the next election.

“The supporters of Move Forward will be upset,” Titipol says. “That would also send them another landslide in the House of Representatives.”

Scenario 4: Conservative forces form a minority government

If the junta-appointed Senate votes against both Move Forward’s and Pheu Thai’s candidates for Prime Minister, it could leave room for a minority coalition of conservative parties in the lower house to nominate their own Prime Minister candidate, who would likely be viewed much more favorably by the Senate.

Among top contenders for such a coalition is Anutin, though experts say that if he were to succeed in getting the premiership, his government would be hamstrung both by the fact that an opposition coalition may still rule the lower house and by the amount of dealmaking that would have had to take place between so many small conservative groups just to form his Senate-enabled governing minority coalition.

“Anutin would be a very weak prime minister. It would be a very fragile coalition, simply alone by the concessions that he would have to make,” says Cogan. “And there would be a lot of pressure to maintain, essentially, the political status quo.”

Such a precarious balance could also be short-lived. As soon as May next year, the Senate’s voting power for the Prime Minister is set to expire—at which point a government made up of a minority coalition in the lower house would no longer be tenable.

Scenario 5: The military retains power

Experts tell TIME that the possibility of yet another military coup—after Thailand experienced two in less than 10 years—isn’t likely, but ultimately can’t be ruled out.

If the Prime Minister vote drags on, this will give Prayut time to submit the annual military reshuffle list and appoint key military positions to loyalists, setting pawns in place for another potential coup after the reshuffle takes effect on October 1.

“It is possible though not plausible that a coup would happen while Thailand awaits a new Prime Minister,” Paul Chambers, lecturer and advisor on international affairs at Naresuan University, tells TIME, adding that’s “only if the archroyalist establishment realizes that [Pita] will indeed become Prime Minister and is determined to stop him [by] using military force.”

However, with the odds stacked against Pita—from resistance in the Senate to any number of political machinations by opponents or allies—a coup may not even be necessary to keep him away from the premiership and keep the military in power. “There are so many alternatives for the establishment,” says Chambers.

Meanwhile, says Napon, the visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute: “There is no deadline, so [Prayut] is currently the caretaker prime minister and he can continue to fulfill that role until the next Prime Minister is elected.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com