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Thai election

Thailand's anti-junta allies see lower house majority within reach

Still-unaligned Democrats and Bhumjaithai poised to tilt balance

From left: Sudarat Keyuraphan, the Pheu Thai Party's prime ministerial candidate, and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, tell the media about their "democratic front" in Bangkok on March 27. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

BANGKOK -- Thailand's Pheu Thai Party on Wednesday announced it has formed an anti-junta coalition with six other parties, including billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit's Future Forward, with the parties claiming they have enough seats for a majority in the lower house.

"Seven parties will join together to stop [the junta] from remaining in power," Sudarat Keyuraphan, Pheu Thai's prime ministerial candidate, told reporters. She said she hopes other parties will join the coalition, which is loosely aligned with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thanathorn, who joined her at the news conference, said the new coalition will reach a majority, but this could not be confirmed because the actual results remain uncertain. "The prime minister should be chosen from the party that secured the most seats in the lower house," he said. "I will support Sudarat to be the prime minister."

Even if the coalition does have enough seats to take control of the 500-seat lower house, it would still fall well short of the presence needed in both houses to select a new premier.

The constitution states that the prime minister should be chosen by an overall majority of the 500 lower house members and 250 upper house senators. Since the junta will select all the senators, it has a clear advantage when it comes to forming the government.

A pro-junta coalition led by Palang Pracharat party is likely to hold 121 lower house seats, with the help of Action Coalition for Thailand, a party led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban. This side would need another 130 seats to secure a lower house majority but just five more to be able to appoint Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as leader of the next government.

The anti-junta alliance hopes to at least gain lawmaking capability through a majority in the lower house, where legislative power is concentrated. But if the pro-junta coalition takes enough seats to keep Prayuth as prime minister while its rivals control a majority in the lower chamber, it would likely create a serious deadlock in parliament.

Later on Wednesday, Palang Pracharat leader Uttama Savanayana criticized the anti-junta coalition in a news conference for claiming it had the majority of the lower house. "The Election Commission has not finalized the result. No matter how many seats they say they have secured, the number is not fixed yet," he said.

"We are confident that we can form the next government. We are open to work with any parties that have the same vision and principles," he added.

Meanwhile, the Democrat Party and the Bhumjaithai Party, could still live up to pre-election expectations that they would be kingmakers. The two parties may align themselves with either side and are likely to choose the one that offers the best deal. In doing so, they may have to get over some bad blood.

The 72-year-old Democrat Party is expected to obtain 52 seats in the lower house. Former leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, an ex-prime minister himself, had vowed to win over 100 and quickly announced his resignation when it was clear the party would not reach that threshold.

Abhisit was a strong believer in democratic values. "I definitely will not support Prayuth Chan-ocha to be the next prime minister," he said in a video released a few weeks before the election. Some see Abhisit's resignation as a prelude to the Democrats joining the pro-junta forces, but there has been no indication this will happen.

In the past, the Democrat Party fought a bitter rivalry with Thaksin allies, including a bloody suppression of pro-Thaksin protesters by a Democrat-led government. If Pheu Thai wants to bring the Democrats on board, it must overcome this history.

The pro-junta camp would likely be a smoother fit for the Democrats. "The Democrats' and Palang Pracharat's support bases are fundamentally the same," said Yuji Mizukami, visiting research fellow of political science at Thammasat University. Both are supported by the urban establishment, which includes the military.

When the Nikkei Asian Review interviewed supporters of the Democrat Party on Friday, at its last campaign rally in Bangkok before the election, many implied the party should collaborate with the pro-junta forces. "If joining with Palang Pracharat makes Thailand move on peacefully, I will accept it," said Wongsatorn Wannasing, a 23-year-old university student.

As for Bhumjaithai, it is expected to obtain 51 seats. Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul used to be the president of Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction, one of Thailand's biggest contractors.

His party is known for eccentric policies, such as promoting cannabis farming to improve rural livelihoods. It also supports a four-day workweek and the legalization of ride-hailing services.

Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of the Bhumjaithai party.   © Reuters

Bhumjaithai has played the swing role in parliament before, but this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Anutin. If he decides to join the pro-junta camp, he is likely to get a top position at a major ministry -- though not the prime minister's job, which is reserved for Prayuth.

If he joins the anti-junta alliance, there is a possibility he could become the leader of the whole coalition, if the other parties play along. This could even pave his way to become prime minister if the coalition pieces together enough seats to form a government.

Bhumjaithai was founded in 2008 as a spinoff from the Thaksin camp and joined the Democrat-led government. Thaksin allies are said to hold a grudge toward the party as a result, especially influential Bhumjaithai figure Newin Chidchob, who currently chairs football club Buriram United in the northeast of Thailand.

With so much baggage to attend to, the Democrat Party and Bhumjaithai may continue to keep quiet about their inclinations.

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