This week’s parliamentary vote for prime minister will probably be the most decisive in Thailand after nearly a decade of military rule. The key question on everyone’s mind is, will the conservative forces allow the young leader of the Move Forward Party (MFP), Pita Limjaroenrat, to become the next prime minister. The second question naturally follows, which is, if Pita is blocked, what will happen?
A Very Fluid Situation
Optimism and pessimism, hope and fear co-exist among Thais these days, but with hope definitely on the ascendant. A sense of a new dawn for the country became unstoppable after the MFP unexpectedly won the most votes in the parliamentary elections on May 14, 2023. It won 151 seats, besting its coalition partner, the Thaksin family-controlled Pheu Thai party that raked in 141 seats. Parties controlled by the ruling military regime were left in the dust, gathering a measly 76 seats.
MFP’s rise was mercurial. Founded just five years ago, it came in third in the parliamentary elections of 2019. Then, coming in first in 2023, it won 14 million votes, or 40 percent of votes cast, up from 13 percent in 2019. MFP frustrated every legal maneuver that the military-controlled Constitutional Court threw at it. The Court disqualified Future Forward founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit from serving in Parliament, along with several other winners in the 2019 elections. The Court followed this up by dissolving Future Forward and banning its executives from politics for 10 years in February 2020, only to see it resurrected as Move Forward a month later, with a new leader, Pita, who declared that “Move Forward is the new chapter of Future Forward.”
Viewed in retrospect, however, these earlier hurdles were not as big as the challenge Move Forward now faces, which is to enforce recognition of the right to form the government and enact promised reforms to the country’s entrenched power structure. To be prime minister, Pita must get 376 votes from the 750 members of the bicameral National Assembly. He already has 312 votes and needs 64 more either from rival parties in the Lower House or the 250-person Senate. Pita says he already has the necessary 64 votes, but this may be part of the psychological warfare leading up to July 13.
The Dilemma of the Thai Establishment
The military, though discredited, remains a powerful force. The most decisive force that will shape the outcome of July 13 is the Senate, whose members were appointed by the military. The senators consider themselves the guardians of the Kingdom’s three pillars — “Nation, Religion, and the King.” Although some senators have declared they will vote for the “will of the people,” others have announced that they could not support the party that advocates the “overthrow the monarchy.”
The issue is MFP’s position on the lese majeste law. While sympathetic to the youth-led protest movement’s demand that the royal defamation law be abolished, during the election campaign and after the May election, MFP came out with a position that explicitly seeks reform rather than abolition of the draconian law that imposes long-term jail sentences on those judged to be insulting or defaming the royal family. According to MFP MP Rangsiman Rome, the party’s position is to “reform the law, for instance, by stipulating that one cannot accuse a person of lese majeste simply by running to the police; this has to be done through a legal process handled by one government agency that carefully assesses the charge.”
But whether MFP’s position is to abolish or to reform the law, the royal palace, with its strong influence on the unelected, hand-picked senators, some observers contend, will be the real kingmaker on July 13.
A New Era in Thai Politics
Whatever happens on July 13, Thailand has already stepped into a new era. The significance of MFP’s stunning victory at the polls has a number of dimensions.
First, the youth vote, that is, Gen Z and Millennials, made the difference in the electoral outcome, which produced and MFP parliamentary contingent whose average age is 39.
Second, the extremely poor performance of the government coalition, along with that of traditional parties like the Democrats that cooperated with the generals, represented a decisive repudiation of military intervention in politics and a call for the generals to return to the barracks and stay there.
Third, MFP’s outstripping its coalition partner Pheu Thai as the country’s leading party, along with collapse of the Democrats, may mean that at last the citizenry has moved beyond the “Red” versus “Yellow” divide that wracked Thailand before the coup of 2014. Pheu Thai had mobilized mainly the rural masses of the North and Northeast in support of Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist politics, while the Democrats had agitated Bangkok’s middle classes in support of the country’s traditional elites. During the May 2023 elections, in many areas, notably the North, Northeast, and Bangkok, significant numbers of former red and yellow antagonists found themselves together in the fittingly orange MFP camp.
Fourth, MFP ran a strikingly unique campaign by focusing on issues and policies instead of appealing to people’s traditional personal or party loyalties. Unlike the other parties, it did not buy votes, and this was not only because it had no money to do so but out of principle and a conviction that people were tired of the old personalistic, clientelistic politics. Leading up to the May elections, the party assembled a program based on 300 policy positions, from military reform to LGBTQ rights to animal rights, seeking to show the electorate that it was a large tent that had a place for every voter’s special concern.
“We won the soldiers’ votes,” MP Rome told us at a briefing at the party’s headquarters, commenting on one of the more interesting electoral outcomes. “It showed that enlisted men and women agreed with our platform for military reform, which sought to create a truly professional army, where recruits would not be hazed and people would advance by merit rather than by connections.”
Finally, respect for human rights is a central concern of Move Forward’s program, and this will have major implications for foreign policy, especially towards Myanmar, China, and the United States. MFP parliamentarians have been very critical of the Thai military regime’s support for the junta in Myanmar. That regime has also been close to China and relatively cool towards the U.S. Indeed, conservatives have warned that a Move Forward government will favor Washington. MFP leaders have denied this, though relations with Beijing and Washington will certainly be affected by the strongly pro-democracy party’s emphasis on a “rules-based diplomacy” based on “shared values” which strikes conservatives as Washington-speak.
The Thai establishment is caught on the horns of a very big dilemma. It knows that depriving Pita of the prime minister post on July 13 will be a very costly move, one with consequences that are unpredictable but are uniformly negative for it. But even if it does manage to do this, it seems impossible for it to resist for long the momentum of the Move Forward Party. It hears loud and clear the overwhelming message from the electorate, and that is, to get out of the way of change.
FPIF commentator Walden Bello is a former member of the Congress of the Philippines. A consistent advocate of an independent foreign policy, he opposed the US-Philippine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) at the same time that he sponsored the resolution renaming the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea. He is also the author of two recent studies, China: An Imperial Power in the Image of the West, and Trump and the Asia-Pacific: The Persistence of Unilateralism, which can be accessed at https://focusweb.org.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.