The liberal Move Forward party and the Pheu Thai Party face a challenge to forming government with parliamentary rules favouring army-backed parties
Rebecca Ratcliffe, south-east Asia correspondent, and agenciesMon 15 May 2023
Thailand’s opposition parties have secured by far the largest number of votes in national elections, delivering a damning verdict to the military-backed government that has ruled the country for nearly a decade.
With more 99% of votes counted, the progressive Move Forward party, which has developed a huge following among young people, and Pheu Thai, the populist party associated with exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, took a strong lead.
Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who first came to power in a coup in 2014, and who had run a staunchly nationalist campaign, was trailing far behind.
Move Forward party, which wants to reform Thailand’s strict lese majesty law and has taken a strong stance in calling for military reform, shocked even some of its own supporters by outperforming expectations. Throughout the national count, it was neck-and-neck with Pheu Thai, a heavy-weight opposition party which had been aiming to win by a landslide.
Over the past two decades, parties linked to the Shinawatra family campaign have repeatedly proved unbeatable at the ballot box, winning the most seats in every election since 2001.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, described the results as “staggering” and “historic”. Pheu Thai had campaigned using its old approach of populist policies he said, but he added: “Move Forward takes the game to the next level with institutional reform. That’s the new battleground in Thai politics.”
This was the first election in which the lese majesty law was openly discussed by candidates – a change brought about by the 2020 youth-led mass protests where activists risked jail to call for the influence and wealth of the monarchy to be curbed.
Move Forward, whose own candidates have been charged under the law, is the only party to make a clear commitment to reforming it. Pheu Thai had said the matter should be discussed in parliament, while Conservative parties all fiercely oppose change.
While opposition parties have performed strongly, Thailand’s skewed electoral rules – which were rewritten after the 2014 military coup – means it is unclear what the future government will look like.
A future prime minister will be voted on not just by the 500-seat House of Representatives, whose membership will be dictated by the election results, but also by the senate, whose 250 members were appointed by the military after the last coup.
“Move Forward cannot take anything for granted,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich of Ubon Ratchathani University. The party’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, has assumed that they can form a government with Pheu Thai, said Titipol. It was still possible that Bhumjaithai, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, could group together with Pheu Thai and others, he said.
Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of Thaksin and one of Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidates said she was happy for Move Forward, but it was too soon to discuss alliances.
“The voice of the people is most important,” she said.
The election commission is not expected to officially confirm the final number of seats won by each party for several weeks, but forecasts early on Monday indicated that Move Forward would win 113 out of a total of 400 constituency seats, just ahead of Pheu Thai on 112. A further 100 seats will be allocated to parties on a proportional basis.
A Reuters calculation showed both opposition parties set to win more than triple the number of seats of Palang Pracharat, the lead, and the army-backed United Thai Nation party. The turnout was about 39.5 million, or 75% of registered voters.
Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat, a 42-year-old former executive of a ride-hailing app, described the outcome as “sensational”. He said he would not break his promise to refuse to join a coalition with the generals involved in the last coup.
“It will be anti-dictator-backed, military-backed parties, for sure,” he said. “It’s safe to assume that minority government is no longer possible here in Thailand.”
He said he remained open to an alliance with Pheu Thai, but has set his sights on being prime minister.
“It is now clear the Move Forward Party has received the overwhelming support from the people around the country,” he said on Twitter.
Move Forward has built a loyal and engaged support base among young Thais who are fed up with the political status quo. It has promised to push remove the military from politics – a pledge that resonates with young people who have already lived through two military coups, in 2006 and 2014.
It has also promised to break up powerful monopolies that dominate the Thai economy, and reform the lèse-majesté law, under which criticism of the monarchy can be punished with up to 15 years in prison.
A joint session of the House of Representatives will be held with the Senate in July to select the new prime minister.
Ken Mathis Lohatepanont, a political commentator, said that the results marked a new era in Thai politics. “Move Forward’s big win demonstrates that old-style politics fueled by patronage-driven local networks can no longer guarantee victory at the national level. It also signals an end to the era of Thaksin’s electoral dominance,” he said. “It is a strong message that a large number of Thais want change.”
The results mean Thailand is “essentially guaranteed” a change in prime minister, he said.
On Sunday, Prayuth slipped away quietly from his United Thai Nation party headquarters, where there were few supporters to be seen. “I hope the country will be peaceful and prosper,” Prayuth told reporters. “I respect democracy and the election. Thank you.”
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report
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