BANGKOK — Thailand has selected a new prime minister. He’s not from the party people voted for in May.
Led by an 11-party coalition, lawmakers agreed Tuesday afternoon to appoint Srettha Thavisin of the Pheu Thai party as Thailand’s next prime minister, ending months of turbulent negotiations that have alienated the reformist, youth-oriented party, Move Forward, which was blocked from forming a government despite clinching a stunning victory at the polls.
“I will do my job to the best of my ability,” said Srettha, 60, a real estate tycoon turned political newcomer, after receiving the support of 482 out of 731 attending legislators at parliament. On Monday, he told reporters it was “necessary,” given the country’s protracted political deadlock, for people to move past the party’s earlier promises not to cooperate with military leaders. He still needs to be endorsed by Thailand’s monarchy and sworn in before he can take office.
While the election was widely regarded as a rebuke of the conservative military establishment that has governed Southeast Asia’s second largest economy for the past decade, the new ruling coalition includes pro-military leaders, including generals from the outgoing government who have violently quashed criticism in the name of maintaining stability.
The vote formalized a remarkable about-face for Pheu Thai, which vowed — until recently — not to share power with members of the conservative elite who have repeatedly ousted it from government through judicial or military coups.
Hours before the vote, Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to the country after 17 years in self-exile, a decision that analysts say was probably made in anticipation of Pheu Thai’s shaky ascent back into power. Thaksin, 74, helped establish an earlier incarnation of Pheu Thai, and his daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, was earlier put forward as one of the party’s candidates.
A billionaire who built his wealth running a telecommunications conglomerate, Thaksin led Thailand from 2001 to 2006, when he was overthrown by the military. Faced with a raft of corruption charges, he has avoided returning to his home country with the exception of a brief visit in 2008, even as the populist movement he founded continued to play a major role in Thai politics.
But on Tuesday morning, hours before Pheu Thai’s Srettha garnered enough votes to assume the top role, Thaksin disembarked from a private jet at Don Mueang International Airport. After meeting briefly with family, he was escorted to the Supreme Court and then to the Bangkok Remand Prison, where authorities said he is being held in isolation.
It is not immediately clear whether Thaksin will serve his full sentence of eight years in prison under the new government led by Srettha, a close ally of the Shinawatra family. Many expect Thaksin to try to seek a royal pardon or parole based on medical reasons.
“We’ve missed him,” said Boom Faidang, 66, one of thousands of Thaksin supporters in red shirts who gathered at the airport to welcome home the renowned fugitive. “He has done so many good things for Thai people and for the country.”
Deposed by the military in 2014, Pheu Thai earned fewer votes than expected at the election this May, losing ground to Move Forward, a youth-oriented party that has sought — more explicitly and consistently than Pheu Thai — to curb the sweeping powers of the Thai monarchy and military.
Pheu Thai initially allied itself with Move Forward against the military parties. But after the country’s military-appointed, 250-member Senate voted twice to reject the prime ministerial bid of Move Forward’s candidate Pita Limjaroenrat, Pheu Thai abandoned that coalition and reneged on campaign promises not to ally with its former political foes, including the parties of outgoing Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.
Move Forward, which voted against the ruling coalition on Tuesday, will again serve in the opposition. “I didn’t fail” to become prime minister, said Pita, who has emphasized to reporters in recent months, “I was blocked.” The Bangkok lawmaker sports degrees from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Move Forward supporters as well as a segment of Pheu Thai adherents say the new coalition ignores what people demanded at the polls, which is an end to military rule. In a news conference Monday, Pheu Thai said it had promised cabinet positions to pro-military parties Palang Pracharath and Ruam Thai Sang Chart, which have governed with rising authoritarianism over the past decade, arresting hundreds of young people at student-led protests in 2020 and changing the constitution to preserve their power.
Nattawut Saikua, a prominent leader of Thaksin’s red shirt movement, announced this week that he would leave Pheu Thai because of its decision to share power with the military. “I can’t go along with it,” said Nattawut.
While the new government is not “fully democratic,” it is expected to be more effective than the outgoing junta in addressing the challenges plaguing Thailand, from increasing household debt and a rapidly aging population to rising crime and insecurity along the Thai-Myanmar border, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
“Thailand is in desperate need of a better performing government, a more competent government,” he said.
Srettha, a Bangkok native, holds a master’s of business administration from Claremont University in the United States and worked for the manufacturer Proctor and Gamble before becoming the chief executive for property developer Sansiri. He has said he will focus on stimulating Thailand’s lagging economy and has publicly supported same-sex marriage.
Pheu Thai’s compromise may have paved the way for Thaksin’s return, though in the long term it could cause lasting damage to the party’s reputation as well as to Thaksin’s political legacy, analysts say. This is “a short term, shortsighted investment,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor of Thai politics at Kyoto University, and a critic of the Thai monarchy. “It is not for the benefit of the voters or supporters of the party,” Pavin said, “but for Thaksin’s own interest.”
Pheu Thai’s dealmaking, analysts say, could end up driving support for Move Forward, which has called for Thailand to amend its controversial lèse-majesté law that mandates severe punishments for anyone who criticizes the royal family.
In 2020, when Thailand’s Constitutional Court disbanded an earlier version of the party, called Future Forward, thousands of young people took to the streets of Bangkok, braving the military’s water cannons and tear gas. At the recent election, it nearly doubled its number of seats in the House of Representatives, showing that it can capture a broad base of support, said Aaron Connelly, a senior fellow for Southeast Asian Politics at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
Conservatives may have stopped Move Forward from assuming power now, Connelly said, but “they can’t keep doing this without forcing a reckoning.”
Tan reported from Singapore. Regine Cabato in Manila contributed to this report.