BANGKOK – The role of the monarchy in Thailand is at the core of a looming deadlock that could tip Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy into crisis, with reformers once again vying to dislodge the grip on power of the royalist military establishment.
Despite a stunning victory with its allies in a May 14 election over pro-military parties, the progressive Move Forward party led by Pita Limjaroenrat faces an uncertain path to government.
The main reason is that part of Move Forward’s political platform is the once-unthinkable proposal to amend Thailand’s “lese majeste” law, Article 112 of the criminal code that punishes insulting the monarchy with up to 15 years in prison.
In a country where reverence for the monarch has for decades been promoted as central to national identity, the idea is so radical that minority parties and many members of the appointed Senate have vowed to block Pita from becoming prime minister.
“The proposed amendment is disrespectful and is offensive to the monarchy,” Senator Seri Suwanpanon told Reuters.
The military has for decades invoked its duty to defend the monarchy to justify intervention in politics, and used the lese majeste law to stifle dissent, critics say.
In parliament, a giant portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn hangs over the chamber where on Thursday members will vote for a prime minister.
But the battle over who gets the job could lead to weeks or even months of deadlock thanks to the votes of a 250-seat Senate, appointed by a junta, that could block the election-winning progressive alliance from securing its choice in a combined vote of both chambers.
The system was set out in a constitution drafted after a 2014 coup led by then-army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister whose party lost badly in the May election.
Much depends on whether Move Forward’s main ally, second-place winner Pheu Thai, sticks with it or seeks other coalition partners if Pita’s bid looks doomed.
King Vajiralongkorn, 70, who has no role in choosing a government, has remained silent on the lese majeste issue since the election. The Royal Palace did not respond to a request for comment.
Move Forward’s proposed amendment reflects cultural changes that have in a few years swept Thailand, where the monarch has for decades been held up as almost semi-divine.
On the surface, much remains the same. The king’s portrait hangs on city streets and buildings. The nightly Royal News airs the royal family’s good deeds.
But subtle changes are evident. In cinemas, many no longer stand for the royal anthem before every film. Satirical memes spring up on social media before the government orders them removed.
The biggest change, however, is political. In the last election in 2019, no party would have dared suggest amending the lese majeste law.
But Move Forward not only dared, it won the most seats in May though the amendment was only one plank of a progressive platform.
The shift emerged with student-led demonstrations in 2020 that began as protests against military rule but evolved into criticism of what the protesters called a military-palace power nexus, and finally into criticism of the king.
Politicians did not lead the protests but Move Forward called for reform of the lese majeste law when activists began to be charged under it.
About 250 of the 1,900 prosecutions linked to the 2020 protests were under Article 112, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
The prosecution of so many under the law pushed the issue into mainstream discourse, analysts say.
“We can now see the real fault line in politics is the role of the monarchy in Thailand’s political order,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
With many senators expected to vote against Pita for prime minister, Move Forward’s 312-seat alliance of eight parties in the 500-seat lower House of Representatives may not be enough to secure him the premiership.
To get to the 376 votes he needs, Move Forward and main partner Pheu Thai need to convince 64 lawmakers from the Senate, or from other parties in the lower house.
If Pita falls short, other scenarios come into play.
Pheu Thai, which has 141 seats to Move Forward’s 151, could nominate its prime ministerial candidate with the eight-party alliance intact.
Loyal to self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup, Pheu Thai has been more careful in its messaging on lese majeste, so one of its prime ministerial candidates could win enough votes.
Another possibility is that Pheu Thai seeks other partners in the lower house for a coalition without Move Forward. Pheu Thai, however, is vowing to stick with Move Forward.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the faculty of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University, said using the law to crush dissent had backfired.
“By over-using Article 112, the conservatives dragged the royal institution deeper into politics,” he said.
Move Forward says amending the law will prevent its misuse and benefit the monarchy. It wants the penalty reduced to at most a year in prison, and only the Royal Household Bureau to be able to file a complaint instead of anyone.
“Some senators misunderstood … accusing Move Forward of wanting to topple the monarchy,” party executive committee member Amarat Chokepamitkul told Reuters.
“We want to amend it to maintain good relations between the monarchy and the people.” – Reuters