A coalition of smaller parties may govern Thailand after elections

Nobody knows when the new election will take place - and whether there will be "accidents" along the way. But pundits are already busy drawing up scenarios for the post-election political landscape.

The two major parties - Pheu Thai and the Democrats - are struggling to prepare for the upcoming polls. They realise that, under the new Charter, the possibility of a government being formed by a major party with majority support in the House is almost non-existent.

The new Constitution is officially supposed to offer "greater immunity for the people". That could mean anything from wider public participation in the political process, to ensuring that corrupt politicians are kicked out of the system once and for all.

But for veteran politicians, there's only one valid interpretation of the new Charter: It's an attempt by the current powers-that-be to retain control over the direction of politics after the election. In other words, the 250 appointed senators will ensure that no major political party is in a position to form a new government.

Most observers seem to agree on the likely general scenario: An outsider (probably a military leader) as the new prime minister, supported by a coalition of medium-size parties, with the two major parties sidelined from mainstream politics. As far as the details go, the rumour-mill is operating at full capacity.

Chart Thai Pattana Party's acting leader, Mr Varavudh Silpa-archa, heir to the Banharn business empire, was compelled to hold a press conference to deny rumours that former premier Thaksin Shinawatra had approached him over the possibility of a "merger and acquisition" deal with Pheu Thai to fight in the upcoming polls.

"Our party isn't for sale," Mr Varavudh declared. The fact that he was troubled enough to make a public statement on the issue underlined the prevailing concern that without Banharn, the party could well face extinction.

Most observers seem to agree on the likely general scenario: An outsider (probably a military leader) as the new prime minister, supported by a coalition of medium-size parties, with the two major parties sidelined from mainstream politics.

On the other hand, Pheu Thai can't be too certain of its own future either, despite its popularity before the May 2014 coup. Hence the speculation about a merger to strengthen its own base.

With its leader still living in self-imposed exile, Pheu Thai faces the daunting challenge of retaining its vast support base in the north and north-east following three years in which it has been denied direct access to its constituents by military control.

The fate of former premier Yingluck Shinawatra hangs in the balance, thanks to court cases against her and former Cabinet members over allegations of corruption surrounding the controversial rice-pledging scheme implemented by her government.

The Democrats have their own internal problems that could affect their performance in the next election. Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva faces an internal revolt that could be spearheaded by followers of Mr Suthep Thaugsuban, who quit the party to lead the anti-Thaksin movement.

Mr Suthep has publicly declared that he won't return to electoral politics. But speculation persists that his followers may be plotting a comeback by seizing control of the party's executive committee in preparation for the new election.

Mr Suthep has made no secret of his support for Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha, while Mr Abhisit has adopted a more cautious position on the possibility of Mr Prayut returning as prime minister after the election via "special clauses" in the new Charter. There is even speculation that former leader Chuan Leekpai - despite his staunch opposition to the idea - may have to be coaxed out of retirement to head the campaign for a party that has not won a general election in the last two decades.

If the theory holds true that big parties will be edged out in favour of a coalition government headed by an outsider, then such medium-size parties as Phoomjai Thai, headed by Mr Anutin Charnveerakul, Chart Pattana led by Mr Suwat Lippatapanlop and Mr Varavudh's Chart Thai Pattana may end up playing significant roles.

But, as most local pundits would tell you, it's still early days - and until organic laws governing political parties and the electoral process are finalised and enacted, anything is possible.

As veteran Thai politics watchers always say: Never say never.

THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'A coalition of smaller parties may govern Thailand after elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe