Partyforumseasia: All over the world, traditionally stable party systems change into a collection of medium and small parties. As a consequence, the formation of governments is getting more complicated and takes more time after the elections. Clear majorities of dominant parties are getting rare, and even the British first-past-the-post election system, which was supposed to create stable majoritarian governments, is not working anymore in the UK itself.
The transition from a military government to a military-dominated coalition in Thailand is an extreme example. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has pulled all possible triggers to remain at the helm after calling an election which was supposed to start the return to a civilian government. The March 2019 election results were surprising in many ways. The traditional parties, Pheu Thai and the Democrats, lost half of their seats from the last parliament before the military rule. The biggest surprise was the success of the new Future Forward Party which denied Prayut’s new Palang Pracharat Party with only 116 seats and 24% of the vote the chance to form a clear majority coalition. But the former general cobbled together a thin majority nevertheless with the help of the Democrats and a string of smaller parties, altogether 18 of them. In June, Partyforumseasia has already discussed the research results of Dr. Punchada Sirivunnabood, how public funding has contributed to the mushrooming of small parties in Thailand.
The remarkable part of this difficult coalition formation is that ten small parties most of which have only one elected member of Parliament have joined. And one of them, Mongkolkit Suksintaranont, leader of the Thai Civilised Party, has already left the new coalition on 13 August. That leaves the Prime Minister’s wafer-thin majority at only 253 seats out of 500 and could, in case the erosion continues, make the legislation a gamble.
The first defector’s explanation in front of the media was PM Prayut’s lapse in his oath of office. Freudian or not, he omitted the allegiance to the constitution and apologized in the meantime. But Prayut got away with it so far since the remaining leaders of the micro-parties declared their support as unconditional and lasting.
More democratically-minded commentators, including the leading academic observer, Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak from the Chulalongkorn University, see the first crack as a sign that the coalition won’t last very long. Their doubts are justified since the Election Commission had interpreted the rules already in a way which first allowed the micro-parties to enter the parliament. But many examples of narrow majority coalitions may teach otherwise. In a big majority, some dissent in policy issues does not matter. But if a coalition is threatened as such and close to losing its grip on power, the survival instinct of the members will prevail and foster cohesion. The spoils of power are much too attractive and will nearly always be stronger arguments than democratic principles. PM Prayut’s new cabinet has 19 ministers and 19 deputy ministers. And concerning incentives to single MPs to toe the government line there are more than enough ways to find a satisfying solution. The growth of the ruling coalitions in Indonesia’s democratic era shows how it works in practice. A commentary in the Bangkok Post on 14 August came with the headline “Tiny parties, giant power”. Rather true, the power to tip the scale comes with a reward and a price, especially in politics and especially in the current politics of Thailand.