Thailand election results are rocked by pro-democracy opposition

In 2014, the military ran a coup against the then-democratic government and has been running things ever since.

Thailand election results are rocked by pro-democracy opposition
Supporters of Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat look out from windows as they celebrate the party's election results in Bangkok, Thailand, May 15, 2023. Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

The backstory: So, let’s get into a little background about Thailand’s current political setup. In 2014, the military ran a coup against the then-democratic government and has been running things ever since. Prayuth Chan-ocha is the general who seized power during that coup, and he’s currently Thailand’s prime minister. He also joined the United Thai Nation military proxy political party this year to run for reelection. But Thailand also has a monarchy, and the royal family backs the military government.

The thing is, generals rewrote the country’s constitution in 2017 to allow the military only to appoint senators, making sure they can vote on who becomes prime minister. The king also has to endorse the new leader for it to go through. So, even though Thailand’s House of Representatives is voted on by the people, the parliament’s 250 senators are totally decided on by the military.

More recently: Thailand also has strict laws in place banning people from criticizing the crown. From 2020 to 2021, the country experienced a lot of public unrest, with youth protests growing into a pro-democracy movement. People were calling for this law against royal criticism to be changed, for the royal budget to be cut down along with the monarchy’s influence and for the military to be reformed. This all really kicked off after one major opposition party, the Future Forward Party, was disbanded by the country’s Constitutional Court.

That party has made a comeback, now called the Move Forward party, and it’s gained a lot of support leading up to this election. Conservative officials have threatened to disband Move Forward as well, but that hasn’t happened. Move Forward is headed off by Pita Limjaroenrat. The other major opposition party is Pheu Thai, led by the founder and former prime minister’s daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra.

The development: Thailand held its general election over the weekend, and these pro-democracy parties won big. The Move Forward and Pheu Thai progressive opposition parties won 292 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives, winning the biggest part of the vote together. By contrast, United Thai Nation only won 36 seats. But, the thing is, alone they don’t stand much of a chance of winning leadership if the military-appointed Senate decides to block them. A candidate would need support from more than half of the two houses – 376 votes – to become prime minister.  

On Monday, the two opposition parties (as well as some other parties) agreed to form a coalition government. This improves their chances of establishing a new government, giving them control of 309 out of 500 seats so far. The current military prime minister said on Sunday that he “has respect for the democratic process and the election results.” But it’s not clear if the junta will hand over control super easily, so we’ll have to wait and see how things play out. But, Mr. Pita has said that blocking the consensus we’re seeing in this election would be a pretty risky move and one that the Thai people probably wouldn’t put up with. If Pita becomes the prime minister, the country will have the youngest and most progressive government in its history.

Key comments:

“People have been through enough of a lost decade,” said Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party, to reporters on Monday. “Today is a new day.”

With the consensus that came out of the election, it would be quite a hefty price to pay for someone who’s thinking of abolishing the election results or forming a minority government,” said Pita Limjaroenrat at a news conference. “And I don’t think the people of Thailand would allow that to happen.”

“They have the popular mandate – 14 million people voted for this party,” said Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at the Yusof Ishak Institute. “And, of course, the party will proclaim this as a sign that Thailand has some readiness for more extensive structural reforms, no matter the institution.”

“I think the reaction will be much more dangerous than four years ago,” said Purawich Watanasukh, a research fellow at King Prajadhipok’s Institute in Thailand, referring to the election in 2019. “Right now, many people have Pita as their new prime minister in their minds. If Pita cannot be prime minister and Move Forward cannot form the government, it will break the people’s hearts. And it will be very, very bad.”