The victory of the anti-military Move Forward Party (MFP) in Thailand’s general election on May 14 came as a surprise to many analysts. While pre-election polls had shown that the conservative and military-aligned parties of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (the United Thai Nation Party) and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan (the Palang Pracharath Party) were likely to receive a drubbing, it was Paetongtarn Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party that was predicted to come out on top.
This expected result would have continued a two-decade pattern in Thai politics whereby the party associated with self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won the most seats in national elections. Instead, the pro-democratic and deeply reformist MFP, led by the 42-year-old businessman Pita Limjaroenrat, took 151 seats and 36.23 percent of the popular vote with Pheu Thai only managing 141 seats and 27.66 percent of the popular vote.
The result has put Pita and Move Forward in pole position to form a coalition government that includes Pheu Thai and several smaller parties. If accepted by a sufficient number of junta-appointed senators, and other influential institutions of the Thai state, Thailand will remarkably be led by a party that has been bolder than any other in calling for the declawing of the elites who have dominated Thai society and politics for decades.
The MFP’s goal of decentralization puts it at odds with the traditional Thai bureaucracy, its goal of de-monopolization puts it at odds with powerful tycoons who have benefited from links to that bureaucracy, and its goal of demilitarization puts it at odds with the institution that has governed Thailand, directly or indirectly, since the military coup of 2014 and that has had an outsized influence in the country’s politics and economy for most of the last century. The party’s willingness to open up a debate about the kingdom’s lese-majeste laws also threatens to upset royalists and perhaps even the palace itself.
Move Forward is also the party that is closest to a broad student and progressive movement that is even more daring than the party itself in challenging the country’s traditional power structures. No more than a week after the election win, the party was forced to backtrack on coalition negotiations with the Chart Pattana Kla party after thousands of MFP voters and supporters stated on social media that they would not accept pro-military coalition members. Chart Pattana Kla leader Korn Chatikavanij had previously voted for Prayut to remain as prime minister following the 2019 elections, and also took part in the mass protests in late 2013 and early 2014 that preceded the military’s overthrow of the Pheu Thai government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. Move Forward’s strong and principled links to ground sentiment may also make the party appear uncompromising and threatening in the eyes of establishment politicians and institutions.
It is this multi-pronged challenge to elite power holders and institutions, as well as the party’s commitment to remaining true to its supporters, that makes the possibility, and later sustainability, of a Move Forward-led coalition government a very big “if.” Since 2006, every political party that has posed a challenge to the political establishment has had its ambitions thwarted, either directly through a military coup or through the rulings of the Election Commission or Constitutional Court. While this fate has mostly befallen parties associated with Thaksin, Move Forward’s predecessor party, Future Forward, was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in February 2020 ostensibly for illegal donations made to the party by one of its founders, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
While there are good reasons to believe that the sword of Damocles is hanging over the heads of Pita and the MFP, one factor that may temporarily halt the cycle of coups and party dissolutions is the fact that Bangkok currently glows orange, the color of Move Forward and Future Forward before it. For certain, there were several other significant regional surprises involving Move Forward in the 2023 election. Phuket, like most of Southern Thailand, has historically voted for conservative and military-aligned parties. Yet, this year, the MFP swept the island’s constituency seats. Move Forward also managed to win a significant number of seats in Northern Thailand, a bastion for Thaksinite parties since 2001. (The northern city of Chiang Mai is the Shinawatras’ hometown.) However, Move Forward’s victory in 32 of 33 seats in Bangkok may be the most significant surprise of the election.
The significance of this result in Bangkok rests with the fact that, for better or worse, Thai governments over the last two decades have survived when Bangkok has supported them and fallen when Bangkok has opposed them, either electorally or in the streets. In the 2001 election, Thaksin’s upstart Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party won a near majority and led the government. That year, 29 of 37 Bangkok seats were won by TRT. Thaksin’s government not only survived the full term, but due to its popularity, managed to get re-elected with an even bigger majority in 2005, winning 377 seats out of a total of 500. In Bangkok, TRT managed to increase its share of Bangkok seats to 32.
It was after the 2005 election that Bangkok, and particularly the capital’s middle class, turned against Thaksin. Thaksin’s majoritarian and illiberal style of governance, combined with accusations of mass corruption, resulted in the formation of the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), with the Bangkok middle class as a key support base. Thaksin did not subsequently survive the term. Mass protests in Bangkok by the PAD throughout 2006 were one factor that helped instigate Thaksin’s removal via a military coup in September of that year.
When the civilian government was resumed, the 2007 election brought another victory for a Thaksinite vehicle, the People’s Power Party (PPP). Bangkok, however, leaned heavily against the PPP, with 27 out of 36 seats going to the Democrats. Subsequently, the PPP did not survive the term. Mass protests by the PAD, the dissolution of the PPP by the constitutional court in late 2008, and engineered defections resulted in the Democrats taking the reins of government without being elected. Despite mass mobilization by pro-Thaksin red shirt protesters throughout 2009 and 2010, Democrat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva lasted until his term ended with the 2011 elections.
In 2011, Pheu Thai, the third incarnation of Thaksin’s party, won a majority with Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, becoming prime minister. Once again, however, Bangkok leaned heavily against the Thaksinite party with 23 out of 33 seats going to the Democrats. In this case too, the government did not survive the term. A new incarnation of the yellow shirts named the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) led mass protests in late 2013 and early 2014 against the government for alleged corruption in a rice-pledging scheme and for a political amnesty bill that could have potentially absolved Thaksin of corruption charges. The PDRC subsequently sabotaged the government’s attempt at a snap election by blocking polling stations, helping to instigate Prayut’s May 2014 coup.
After five years of direct junta rule, elections were held in 2019. While Pheu Thai once again won the greatest number of seats, the military-drafted 2017 Constitution allowed Prayut to remain as prime minister in a minority government with support from the military-selected Senate. In this election, Prayut’s military-aligned Palang Pracharath Party won a plurality of 12 seats in Bangkok with the remaining 18 seats being equally divided between Pheu Thai and Future Forward. Despite significant youth-led protests in 2020 after the dissolution of Future Forward, Prayut completed his term, which ended with the May 14 election.
Remarkably, after 15 years of leaning towards conservative and pro-military parties, Bangkok currently has no electoral districts represented by any of these forces. The one seat that Future Forward did not manage to win in the recent election went to Pheu Thai. Notably, victories for the MFP occurred not just in working-class Thonburi, but also in the most affluent districts of the city.
With the people of Bangkok clearly calling for change, the use of dirty tricks like party dissolutions and the banning of party executives could result in a level of urban unrest that the Thai political establishment may be reluctant to unleash and subsequently deal with. In recent years, when faced with governments or political movements from the provinces that they did not relish, the Thai elite could rely upon Bangkok, and particularly the Bangkok middle class, for support. This assumption no longer seems to hold, and it could indicate a sea change in Thai politics.