After successfully blocking the leader of the Move Forward Party from becoming the next prime minister of Thailand, the country’s military bureaucracy managed to collaborate with the second largest Pheu Thai Party to finally appoint a Prime Minister and subsequently form a government. The political novice and real estate tycoon with allegations of tax fraud, Srettha Thavisin from Pheu Thai was chosen to become the PM, with support from military friendly parties and the military controlled senators. However, the new government is an unstable formation which is seen as a betrayal of Thai masses aspirations who have voted to oust the military control of the nation’s politics in the last election. (https://www.socialistworld.net/2023/06/06/voters-in-thailand-resoundingly-reject-military-rule/)
In the last election, the ruling military party Palang Pracharat and the outgoing prime minister’s General Prayuth’s new party, the United Thai Nation, had only managed to win a combined total of 76 seats. In contrast, the newly formed Move Forward Party (MFP), with limited resources and electoral machinery, managed to win 151 parliamentary seats and emerged as the largest party in Thai parliament. It was clear from the election results that the Thai masses had resoundingly rejected the military and disapproved of its control over the government. Due to that, the military was unable to form a minority government under their full control and had to share power with Pheu Thai (second largest party in parliament) to form a government which could be accepted by the population.
The Pheu Thai party, which initially backed Pita from MFP to become the next prime minister, was persuaded to jump ship when it was clear that the military-appointed senators will not allow Pita to hold the premiership post. Most definitely a deal has been struck between the military leaders and the Pheu Thai leadership to form a government of compromise, despite it being controversial in the eyes of the public. Subsequently, the founder and the main financial sponsor of Pheu Thai, the billionaire tycoon and former Thai PM, Takshin Shinawatra, made a return to Thailand after living in a self imposed exile for over 15 years. Although Takshin was directly jailed upon arrival for his pending graft charges, it is widely viewed as nothing but a temporary arrangement which will see him walk free in no time. The newly appointed PM Srettha, together with his deputy Phumtham, had already hinted that a royal pardon is on its way by announcing that Takshin could serve as an advisor for the new government in the near future.
Pheu Thai betrayal
The Southeast Asian financial crisis of 1997 had an enormous political and economic impact in the region. Indonesia saw a mass movement which toppled the dictator Suharto in 1998 and the ruling parties of other countries such as Malaysia had been significantly weakened. This gave rise to new opposition parties which seek to use this opportunity to dismantle cronyism and bureaucracy in the region in order to liberalise the economy and open up its market to international capital. Mass uprising from the working class and the youth in the wake of the financial crisis were hijacked by opportunist politicians with an ambition to take over the state power from traditional parties.
This was the background which gave rise to Takshin Shinawatra who challenged and defeated the military political proxy, the Democratic Party, in the 2001 elections. This started a two decade long political struggle between the military who had the backing of the traditional crony capitalists including the King of Thailand, and the so called ‘progressive’ political parties funded by different sections of the capitalists, who often courted the support of the youth and the masses. Although very limited, the populist programme put forth by the Pheu Thai party had often garnered them the majority in parliamentary elections. However, due to the failure of Pheu Thai leaders to actually bring about meaningful economic and political reforms when in power, the military forces were able to wrestle the state power back from them multiple times.
In the last elections, Pheu Thai party faced an upset by losing their electoral dominance of 20 years to the newcomer MFP. The party is losing the mass support it once enjoyed largely due to their inefficiency in bringing promised reforms and their reluctance to mobilise the angry masses against the military rule. The masses staged various protests and civil disobedience action throughout these 20 years only to be herded back into electoral politics by the Pheu Thai leadership without any substantial results. (https://www.socialistworld.net/2014/01/27/thailand-prolonged-political-crisis/) Pheu Thai party leaders were obviously afraid to empower the masses to challenge the economic and political system, as a whole, which would be in opposition to the interest of the rich and powerful within Pheu Thai.
The decision to opportunistically seize the government power by collaborating with the hated military bureaucracy will also add to frustration of the masses with the Pheu Thai leadership. Although posing as a principled actor by giving support to the so called ‘anti-junta’ coalition led by MFP right after the election, Pheu Thai swiftly changed path and snatched the vacant PM post as soon as the opportunity presented itself. In the new parliament, there are no talks about reforming the current constitution designed by the coup government of 2014-2019 which unfairly favours the military bureaucracy in parliament. There are also no discussions about reforming the unpopular Section 112 of Thai criminal code which has been used by the military to prosecute thousands of protestors and human rights activists who vocally challenged their power in the past. The latest and first victim of this lese-majeste law under the new government is an activist and a lawyer, Arnon Nampa, who publicly questioned the role of the monarchy in a peaceful mass protest back in 2020. He was sentenced to four years of imprisonment last week by the Thai Criminal Court.
The MFP leader Pita’s bid to become the PM was not only blocked by the military appointed senators, but also by the military controlled Constitutional Court which suspended him from his MP post for an alleged electoral fraud case. Pita is now facing the same fate as his predecessor, the now dissolved Future Forward Party leader who is currently imprisoned for similar accusations. However, the MFP has not pressed the issue any further and have seemingly accepted the formation of the new cabinet and are preparing to become the opposition party in government. Perhaps, they have made a calculation that it is better to safeguard whatever position they had managed to achieve so far and to try again for the top spot in the next elections. It could be deemed too risky for the MFP leaders to go against the military might, especially when the Pheu Thai with a significant number of Parliamentary seats is siding with the military bureaucracy.
Initially, mass protests broke out in Bangkok presumably to push the MFP leader Pita who had the majority support amongst the elected MP’s to assume the PM post. However, the MFP leadership did not rally the masses to build a broader movement and to struggle against the military bureaucracy. The masses were left without a leadership which could organise the working class and the youth of Thailand to demand for justice and democracy. This shows that, despite appearing more radical and bold compared to the Pheu Thai, MFP is also not able or willing to mobilise the masses in an organised manner to challenge the military bureaucracy. Similar to Pheu Thai leadership, MFP also represents the rich elites who want democratic reforms only as far as it could serve their own class agenda. They are afraid of the potential of mass movements which could challenge the entire economic structure of society and potentially shift the balance of power to the working class and the poor.
The inexperienced and unelected Srettha could be an ideal vessel for both the military bureaucracy and different sections of the capitalist class to try and assert their own agenda which could be contradictory at times. This will inevitably create infighting and political manoeuvring which will render the new government unstable. On one hand, the Pheu Thai leaders will be hoping to use their position in power to minimise the dominance of the military and to further liberalise the economy. On the other hand, the military bureaucracy will be waiting for a perfect opportunity to consolidate their power and crush any opposition to their rule. This historic tussle between different sections of the ruling class of Thailand will continue to sharpen in the coming months.
At the same time, the current government is also faced with catastrophic economic conditions with record high unemployment and household debts. Although clamouring for democratic reforms, the majority of the Thai population is also desperate to free themselves from crushing poverty and unsustainable economic burdens which is continuing to worsen since the Covid pandemic. The new government however had not made any significant policy proposals to tend to the needs of the suffering masses.
PM Srettha proposed a meagre increase of about 50 Thai Baht (1.20 USD) to the existing daily minimum wage which is a far cry from Pheu Thai’s electoral promise which was five times the amount. However, even the proposal to increase 50 baht was met with criticism from the newly appointed Labour Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn who has also served as a minister in the previous military led government. Besides him, there are eight other ministers appointed from the previous government including prominent military figures such as the Agriculture Minister Thamanat Prompow who was widely known as one of the architects of the 2014 coup.
PM Srettha had made various promises to improve the livelihoods of the masses including a one off gift of digital currencies and some social programs for the elderly. But experts were quick to point out that these promises require the government to increase its budget deficit which will contribute to the ballooning public debt which is at 60% of the nation’s GDP. Additionally, the sluggish recovery of the global economy after the pandemic, coupled with geopolitical tensions between major powers of the world, is creating uncertainty in domestic economic recovery. The global inflation remains high and demands are falling together with commodity exports. Due to that and other factors, Thailand’s economic recovery has slowed down significantly in the second quarter of 2023, dipping to 1.8% growth compared to 2.6% in the first quarter.
Build a mass working class political party armed with a socialist perspective
The desperate masses will be scrutinising every move of the new government and will look to put pressure on the politicians in power to bring forth meaningful economic policies. In this situation, it is uncertain if the current government could convince the masses to be patient while the global economy recovers. Unless the government is willing to go against the interest of the capitalist class and enforce redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation policies and nationalisation – which they are most definitely unwilling to do given their alliance to the capitalist class – it is highly unlikely that the economic burden of the masses will be lifted. The formation of a government which includes the old bureaucrats who have repeatedly disappointed the masses will not be able to calm the growing anger of the population which could explode into yet another mass uprising similar to the 2019-2020 protests. (https://www.socialistworld.net/2020/09/15/thailand-youth-rising-against-unpopular-junta-regime/)
The working class, youth and the poor of Thailand should not put their hopes on capitalist political parties such as the Pheu Thai and the MFP, who are either incapable and or ill motivated to bring forth real change. They are by nature tied to the interests of the capitalist class which is in direct opposition with the aspirations of the working class and the poor. These liberal and so-called ‘progressive’ formations had repeatedly exposed themselves as incapable of leading the masses towards a desirable outcome.
The struggling Thai people need a working class based political formation in which they can participate en masse and to shape the demands and direction of the party democratically. Such a formation should be equipped with a clear perspective to unite the oppressed under a socialist programme of economic and political revolution which will directly go against the interest of the capitalist class. It is clear by now that seeking change through parliamentary means alone is extremely limited and is never enough to bring about meaningful results for the masses. An organised mass struggle outside electoral politics such as workplace strike actions, university protests and mass civil disobedience movements should also be emphasised to fight back against both the military bureaucracy and the capitalist oligarchy. Many of these actions are not alien to the Thai working class and the youth who have been in a struggle with the Thai ruling class for a prolonged period of time.
However, what was missing in many of those events in the past is a clear leadership which was not only beholden to the ordinary masses, but also had a clear perspective to lead and empower the masses into taking over political power. In the coming months, Thai working class organisations such as trade unions, youth activist organisations and other human rights or grassroots groups should come together and build a mass working class based political leadership which is equipped with a clear anti-capitalist and socialist perspective.