Thailand’s Opposition Parties Score Resounding Election Victory

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Thailand’s Opposition Parties Score Resounding Election Victory

The progressive Move Forward Party is poised for a stunning win in Sunday’s vote, but its ability to form the next government is far from guaranteed.

Thailand’s Opposition Parties Score Resounding Election Victory

Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party, poses as he casts his vote during a general election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, May 14, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Rapeephat Sitichailapa

Thailand’s opposition parties are on the brink of a convincing victory over the military-backed establishment parties in yesterday’s election, setting up an intriguing period of political maneuvering as they seek to convert these gains into a role in the country’s next government. With 99 percent of the votes counted as of this morning, the progressive opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) held a small lead over the favored Pheu Thai Party (PTP), with both winning significantly more support than the main military-backed establishment parties.

According to Thailand’s Election Commission, the MFP captured just over 24 percent of the popular vote for the 400 constituency seats in the House of Representatives, and almost 36 percent of the vote for the 100 House members elected from party lists via proportional representation. The PTP, a party associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had won just over 23 percent for the constituency seats and about a 27 percent share for the party list. According to a Reuters calculation, this translated into 151 seats for the MFP and 141 for Pheu Thai, giving the two opposition parties a solid parliamentary majority.

While the opposition parties were expected to perform well based on pre-election polls, the MFP’s surge has exceeded even the party’s own most optimistic projections. Remarkably, the party was poised to capture most, if not all, of the 33 parliamentary seats in the capital Bangkok.

The successor to the Future Forward Party, which came in third in the 2019 election, when it won 17.34 percent of the vote and 81 seats in the House, the MFP is also the party most associated with the wave of youth-led anti-establishment protests that took place in late 2020 and early 2021, calling for reforms to the monarchy and the creation of a genuinely democratic system.

Its strong performance demonstrates the benefit of campaigning on principle: the MFP and its telegenic leader Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, have pledged to dismantle monopolies, weaken the military’s political role, and – most controversially – amend Thailand’s lese-majeste law, which criminalizes any criticisms of the monarchy or royal family, and has been used to silence political dissent.

The party’s principled stand appears to have captured some PTP supporters who have grown disillusioned with the party since it emerged that it was considering an alliance with military-backed parties. The MFP’s policy agenda also enjoy strong support among Thailand’s youth, and the party clearly benefited this year from an influx of 3.3 million first-time voters.

After targeting a “landslide” of 310 seats, Pheu Thai would have to be disappointed with its performance. Prior to yesterday, the party had prevailed in every Thai election since 2001, driven by the rampant popularity of Thaksin, who was toppled from power in a coup in 2006. Late last night, the party’s leaders say they were willing to join hands with MFP in order to form the next government.

“We will work with them. “We are ready to talk to Move Forward, but we are waiting for the official result,” Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the party’s leading prime ministerial candidate, told reporters in Bangkok. “I’m happy for them,” she added. “We can work together.”

While the election result represents a stinging repudiation of Thailand’s military establishment, which has more or less governed the country since the military coup of 2014, the winner of the election is not assured the right to form the new government. Under the military-drafted 2017 Constitution, the 250-member unelected Senate will join with the 500 members of the lower house to choose the next prime minister. Since the Senate is expected to vote in favor of parties or blocs allied with the military, this ensures that any party or coalition of parties must hold a supermajority of 376 seats in the lower house in order to guarantee the election of their preferred candidate.

Given that the MFP and PTP will together fall short of the 376-seat threshold, their strong performance sets up an intriguing period of political negotiation. The first question is whether the two parties could attract the necessary support from one or more smaller parties in order to form the next government. One possible candidate is the Bhumjaithai Party, a member of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s ruling coalition that is led by current Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, which Reuters projects to win 70 seats. Another is the once-mighty Democrats, who are on track to win 25. Whether these parties would agree to join Pheu Thai, let alone the staunchly anti-establishment MFP, remains to be seen.

If the opposition parties can’t cobble together a coalition with the necessary numbers, the role of the Senate comes into focus. To begin with, it is hard to see the body supporting MFP’s Pita Limjaroenrat, who yesterday reaffirmed his party’s “absolute” desire to reform the lese-majeste law, setting himself against the conservative establishment, nor Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra, whose father Thaksin is the longtime bete-noire of the Thai establishment. Indeed, given its stance on the monarchy, it is an open question whether the Senate would support the prime ministerial candidate of any coalition that included the MFP.

Given these realities, the ascension of another conservative government, led by Prayut or another military-backed figure, cannot be ruled out. Assuming they could count on the Senate’s support, establishment and military-backed parties would only require 126 seats in the House of Representatives. According to the preliminary results this is well within their reach. The ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), led by the Deputy Prime Minister deputy Prawit Wongsuwan, a former general, looks set to win 41 seats in the House of Representatives, while Prayut’s United Thai Nation Party (UTNP) is expected to win 36 seats. With the support of Bhumjaithai and other small establishment parties, these parties would have more than enough seats to form a minoritarian government, as they did in 2019.

However, another minority government, built on an even slimmer basis of support than four years ago, would raise serious questions of legitimacy. Should the two best performing parties be excluded from the next government, their supporters could legitimately question whether the current system will ever reflect the people’s will. The likely result would be a return to street politics – perhaps a blending of the pro-Thaksin “red shirt” protests of the 2000s and 2010s with the youthful uprising of the early 2020s – and a fresh round of political instability.

The other slimmer possibility is a coalition between Pheu Thai and other parties from the rest of the political spectrum, excluding the MFP. As far-fetched as this once might have seemed, the PTP is rumored to have considered an alliance with elements of the conservative establishment, aimed at ending the country’s cyclical political crisis. Whether the party’s leadership, which has more recently ruled out joining hands with leaders of past coups – this would seem to rule out both Prayut, who led the 2014 coup, and Prawit, a former general who was then Prayut’s deputy – would gamble its future political fortunes on such an alliance is another tantalizing question that could be answered in the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, one can’t rule out the possibility of “dirty tricks” – that the MFP could be ruled ineligible by a judiciary that has a long history of placing its thumb on the scale to the advantage of the ruling elite. Its predecessor party Future Forward was disbanded by a court ruling on a minor technicality in early 2020, and it is not hard to see things going the same way for Pita or his party. As The Associated Press has reported, a PPRP candidate last week filed a complaint with the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission, charging that Pita had failed to list a stock shareholding on a statutory declaration of his assets. Looming above this, of course, is the Damoclean threat of another military coup should the political situation move in a direction threatening to the political establishment.

All this lies in the future. It could be several weeks before the Election Commission releases the final results of yesterday’s election and parliament convenes to select the next prime minister. But as things stand, there is every likelihood that this stunning performance by Thailand’s opposition parties giving way into yet another iteration of the country’s self-defeating and self-destructive political crisis.