Pheu Thai Party's prime ministerial candidates Paetongtarn Shinawatra (left) and Srettha Thavisin address the media at the party's headquarters in Bangkok on May 15, 2023. Thailand's opposition Pheu Thai party said it was willing to join a coalition government led by the reformist Move Forward Party, after voters kicked out the ruling army-linked government. Image Credit: AFP

BANGKOK: Thai voters have delivered an emphatic rejection of military-backed rule at the ballot box, voting in droves for the two main opposition parties.

The result leaves the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) seeking to form a coalition government with Pheu Thai and five other parties.

But in a kingdom with a long history of coups and judicial intervention in politics, the road to power is not certain.

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Here is a look at the next steps and potential pitfalls.

What happens now?

MFP has announced it will enter negotiations to form a coalition with Pheu Thai - the party of billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup - as well as four smaller parties.

This would create a coalition with 309 seats in the 500-seat lower house. However, that might not be enough.

The prime minister is chosen by both the lower house and the Senate, which has 250 members, all handpicked by the last junta.

The MFP-led coalition would need to find 376 lower house votes to ensure senators could not block party leader Pita Limjaroenrat from becoming PM.

One option might be for the coalition to sign up the Bhumjaithai party, which has 71 seats - either for a long-term deal or just for the PM vote.

Bhumjaithai - led by health minister Anutin Charnvirakul - were in the outgoing military-linked coalition, but they have shown themselves to be political chameleons over the years.

But horse-trading over the PM vote must wait for horse-trading over the details of the coalition.

Move Forward and Pheu Thai have an overlapping support base and share some common ground on policy, including plans to rewrite the military-scripted 2017 constitution and increase the minimum wage.

But MFP’s strong stance on reforming Thailand’s harsh royal defamation laws, which carry a jail sentence of up to 15 years, could be a sticking point.

Could the military get in the way?

Military-linked parties could try to form a minority government, relying on Senate support to get their choice of PM through.

This happened after the 2019 election, in which Prayut Chan-O-Cha became prime minister at the head of a multi-party coalition despite Pheu Thai winning the most seats.

But in 2019 the junta party Palang Pracharath (PPRP) won 116 seats and could count on another 100 from sympathetic conservative parties.

This time PPRP was reduced to 40 seats, while Prayut’s United Thai Nation party managed just 36.

Bhumjaithai support and Senate votes could help carry the PM vote, but such a coalition would likely struggle to govern - it would be vulnerable to no-confidence motions and reliant on opposition parties to pass any legislation.

Thailand has seen a dozen coups in the last century, but another military intervention is not seen as likely - at least in the short term.

“I think that would be the very, very last option,” Ubon Ratchathani University political analyst Titipol Phakdeewanich told AFP.

Who will be Thailand’s next PM?

MFP leader Pita appears to be in pole position to take the top job.

He announced himself as “the next prime minister of Thailand” when he met reporters on Monday, but other forces could come into play.

US-educated Pita has raised hackles among the kingdom’s influential business-military-royalist nexus by pledging to reduce the army’s influence, break up the monopolies that dominate the Thai economy and reform strict lese-majeste laws.

This could make him an unpalatable choice for the establishment, so the coalition may end up looking for a less controversial option.

What about the courts and the Electoral Commission?

Pita is facing an investigation from the Electoral Commission over shares in a now-defunct media company owned by his late father.

Pita claims he is simply the executor of his father’s will and not the owner of the shares.

Titipol, the analyst, said the issue was a potential trump card if the royalist-military establishment wanted to block MFP.

“That is the only case they could use against Pita,” Titipol told AFP, adding it could lead to another round of major protests in Bangkok.

Thai courts have a history of intervention in politics, throwing two prime ministers out of office and dissolving several parties linked to Thaksin.

MFP predecessor the Future Forward Party was dissolved by court order in 2020 after it unexpectedly came third in the 2019 election.