Thailand’s elections in May were the country’s freest in many years. Nevertheless, they produced a chaotic electoral outcome followed by a period of frantic horse-trading, from which the Pheu Thai party ultimately emerged to lead a controversial coalition government in August. The question now is: Can Pheu Thai and its coalition partners actually govern in a way that reunites Thais, strengthens long-eroded democratic institutions and addresses Thailand’s many other major problems?
Back in May, it was not Pheu Thai, but rather Move Forward—the progressive party most committed to institutional reform of the military and even revising laws surrounding discussion of the monarchy—that won the most seats in the lower house of parliament. Move Forward tried to form a coalition government with Pheu Thai, the longtime populist vehicle of the Shinawatra family, as well as other pro-democracy parties. But it was thwarted by a constitutional requirement that any government must be approved not by a majority of the 500-member lower house, which Move Forward and its allies controlled, but rather by a majority of the combined 750 legislators of the lower and upper houses.
The measure was written into the country’s 2017 constitution by the military junta that had seized power in a coup three years earlier, and it was designed to give the military, which appoints the upper house, a de facto veto over government formation. It worked as intended, as the coalition led by Move Forward, which was given the first chance to form a government, could not assemble enough support from the upper house.