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Thailand’s Populist Pheu Thai Party Finally Won the Prime Minister Vote—But at What Cost?

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Concluding months of uncertainty, Thailand is finally getting a new prime minister: 60-year-old Srettha Thavisin was backed by votes from 482 out of 747 lawmakers in parliament on Tuesday after his party Pheu Thai cobbled together a controversial coalition to form a new government.

Srettha—a Bangkok-based real estate tycoon who, standing at six-foot-three-inches, is nicknamed Nid (“little” in Thai)—is a relative newcomer to politics, holding strong support from businesses and known to be a vocal supporter of queer rights and environmental sustainability. (He is also facing allegations of tax evasion—which some lawmakers brought up at the parliamentary debate on Tuesday.)

But Srettha’s ascent marks less the start of a new era for Thai politics and more a last grasp at power by both the populist Pheu Thai party and the conservative establishment. When the country held its general election in May, the progressive, pro-democracy Move Forward Party came out on top, promising to turn the page from the military- and monarchy-aligned rule of the last decade. Initially, Pheu Thai, which finished second at the polls and had also opposed the military establishment that ousted its elected former leaders twice in coups, announced an alliance with Move Forward. However, when it eventually became clear that the establishment would block Move Forward from taking charge, Pheu Thai abandoned the alliance and joined forces with the military-aligned parties it had once forsworn.

“We will translate disagreements into consensus,” Pheu Thai wrote in a post on X, the platform previously known as Twitter, on Tuesday evening when it became clear that Srettha would become the country’s next Prime Minister.

That won’t be easy though, experts warn. Pheu Thai is set to take the helm of a precarious coalition government of former enemies, betraying much of its own base as well as earning the ire of a large and growing progressive movement. Here’s what to know about how Pheu Thai got to this point—and what it will have to grapple with going forward.

Moving forward without Move Forward

Going into May’s election, Pheu Thai was widely expected to perform best. Public dissatisfaction with the country’s tumultuous military-backed rule was clear, and Pheu Thai had long occupied the most prominent opposition role. Srettha was one of the party’s three prime ministerial candidates, which also included Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of former Prime Minister and de facto founder of Pheu Thai Thaksin Shinawatra, who returned from exile on Tuesday.

But the upstart Move Forward Party—led by the young and charismatic Pita Limjaroenrat and most known for its calls to amend Section 112, the controversial lese-majeste law wielded against pro-democracy activists—ended up getting even more votes. Pheu Thai did not back Move Forward’s royal defamation reform plan, but it partnered with the election winners anyway, united in their common promise to end the incumbent military-backed rule.

After Pita was blocked from becoming Prime Minister last month, Move Forward announced that it would support a Pheu Thai-led coalition, emphasizing that its goal was to “form a government of the democracy side.” But it had become clear that the royalist establishment forces that stood in Pita’s way would not permit any new government with Move Forward involved. By early August, Pheu Thai announced it would seek a new coalition without Move Forward.

The next few weeks saw Pheu Thai welcome coalition partners from across the spectrum, including some of the explicitly military-aligned parties it had previously campaigned against. As a result, Move Forward declined to back the Pheu Thai-led coalition, saying that it “distorts the will of the people in the elections.”

Pheu Thai’s break with Move Forward may have enabled Srettha to win the necessary votes on Tuesday, but it will have serious long-term implications, experts warn. “Perhaps most critical in this post-election melodrama is the damage that has been done to Pheu Thai in its relationship with Move Forward,” Mark S. Cogan, an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Japan’s Kansai Gaidai University, tells TIME. “It’s clear now that Pheu Thai is thinking too much in the short term, while the more idealistic Move Forward is thinking about the long-term health of a more progressive movement.”

While Pheu Thai has said that it will continue to push for some of the policies outlined in its initial memorandum of understanding with Move Forward—including marriage equality and reforms to the police, military, and judiciary—its new 11-party coalition was built on the condition that there will be no amendments to the lese-majeste law and no involvement of Move Forward. Meanwhile, Move Forward, now forced into an opposition role despite its popularity in the polls, is poised to win even more public support, especially among Pheu Thai voters disappointed in their party’s new choice of partners.

“[Pheu Thai’s] collaboration with parties aligned with the military effectively closes the door on potential future cooperation with Move Forward in a pro-democracy coalition,” Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, tells TIME. “The party’s standing has been tarnished in the eyes of liberal and pro-democracy voters.”

A shaky ‘government of reconciliation’

If Pheu Thai’s broken alliance with Move Forward was a sharp disappointment for pro-democracy voters, the party’s unlikely partnership with its former military-backed rivals is a slap in the face for its diehard “Red Shirt” supporters, for whom the memories of deadly protests against the military elite in the 2000s remains fresh.

Srettha himself said ahead of the election months ago that he would decline the top post if it meant Pheu Thai had to form a coalition with outgoing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha or Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, two figures who represent the military’s stranglehold in Thai politics. “The idea of me working with them in the same government, sitting in the same cabinet,” he told VOA in May, “I can’t see myself doing that.” This week, he argued the political maneuver to partner with both of their parties was necessary to implement Pheu Thai’s promised policies. 

“On the one hand, given the less-than-democratic system that produced this outcome, it is a pragmatic approach to salvaging a semi-democratic government that won’t have all of the key line ministries controlled by conservatives,” says Cogan.

“On the other hand, Pheu Thai must know that is gambling with its future, as the most loyal of the Red Shirt movement will disavow a party leadership that made friends with the devil.”

What Pheu Thai is calling a “government of reconciliation” has been met with dismal public support, with 64.5% of respondents in a public poll disagreeing with such a coalition government.

Adding to the tensions is the sensational return of former Prime Minister Thaksin, who was greeted by emotional Red Shirt supporters when he touched down in Bangkok on Tuesday morning, just hours before the Prime Minister vote, having spent over a decade in self-exile after he was ousted in a 2006 coup and fled the country in 2008 to avoid jail for corruption. The 74-year-old was taken to prison on Tuesday to serve his eight-year sentence, though it’s believed that Pheu Thai struck a deal to guarantee his early release.

“By aligning itself with parties connected to the military and the conservative establishment, Pheu Thai has sacrificed whatever remains of its credibility as a party championing liberal and pro-democratic values in opposition to military rule,” says Napon, adding that the coalition has also left Pheu Thai “considerably constrained in its capacity to fulfill campaign promises and shape future government policies.”

It remains to be seen just how well a government made up of members with vastly different—often conflicting—interests can run, Napon explains. “If effectiveness is measured in terms of the ability to fulfill campaign promises and implement policies, I believe that the new Pheu Thai-led coalition will not be very effective. Its policy priorities will be compromised by the need to maintain a shaky alliance involving other parties that make pressing demands in return for propping up the coalition.”

According to an announcement by the coalition on Monday, Pheu Thai is set to have eight ministers—including the Prime Minister—and nine deputy ministers. Bhumjaithai, the conservative party known for legalizing cannabis and the May election’s third-highest vote-getter, will have four ministers and four deputy ministers. Meanwhile, the military-aligned United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharath will each have two ministers and two deputy ministers.

The devil’s bargain that Pheu Thai made to secure its place in a majority government, Napon says, appears to have set the party up to fail. “Pheu Thai’s move amounted to a betrayal of the mandate of its supporters,” he says. “Any mismanagement or backlash from the public will likely be attributed to Pheu Thai, leaving it in a vulnerable position.”

Protests against the new government seem inevitable. Already, over the past few weeks, pro-democracy activists and Red Shirts held demonstrations begging—unsuccessfully—that Pheu Thai not betray them by teaming up with their former political foes.

Meanwhile, despite being relegated to the opposition after its election victory, not all is lost for Move Forward or the progressive movement. It’s only a matter of time, experts say, before the young, ambitious party, which has set itself apart with its unwavering commitment to its principles, returns even stronger to contest the country’s leadership again. Says Cogan, “It’s very likely that if and when Thailand holds another election, Move Forward will likely gain where Pheu Thai lost. While that means those that voted for Move Forward lose out in the short-term, they will ultimately gain.”

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