Thailand’s Election: The Start of a New Chapter or Prelude to More Turmoil?

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Thailand’s Election: The Start of a New Chapter or Prelude to More Turmoil?

How the change in voting tendencies among Bangkokians may indicate a national political shift.

Thailand’s Election: The Start of a New Chapter or Prelude to More Turmoil?

Leader of Move Forward Party Pita Limjaroenrat, front row fourth from left, holds hands after signing a memorandum of understanding on attempt to form a coalition government between Move Forward Party and other parties during a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, May 22, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

On May 15, the day following the general election in Thailand, people crowded around the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, which was built to commemorate the 1932 revolution. It was late afternoon and those who had gathered were wearing orange and carrying orange banners. They were supporters of the Move Forward Party (MFP) and they cheered loudly as MFP’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, passed by, offering those gathered his thanks for their support. This sort of gathering, which was not a protest and was characterized by hope rather than anger, was a new phenomenon on the streets of Bangkok, the Thai capital long known for its “street politics.”

The election of the members of the lower house was decided through two ballots. Specifically, 400 constituency seats were chosen using the first-past-the-post principle, and a subsequent ballot for 100 seats was conducted through the party list, using a nationwide proportional representation mechanism. The MFP well exceeded expectations across both ballots, winning 151 of the 500 seats available.

The election heralded the rise of the MFP and laid bare its dominance in the Bangkok metropolis, a striking change compared with the performance of its predecessor, the Future Forward Party, in 2019. In particular, the MFP won 32 of Bangkok’s 33 constituency seats with the remaining seat claimed by a slim margin by the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), another opposition party. The PTP is the party of Paetongtarn “Ung Ing” Shinawatra, one of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s daughters, and performs consistently well in its strongholds of the northeast (Isan) and northern regions of Thailand. It won 141 seats in the election, an impressive number but lower than had been expected due in large part to the MFP’s stellar performance.

The ascendance of the Thai opposition cannot be denied and the fragmented ruling coalition has been tested by the will of Thai voters. The incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s party, the United Thai Nation Party, won just 36 seats, while a key faction of the ruling coalition, the Palang Pracharath Party led by former-general Prawit Wongsuwan who has broken from Prayut, gained just 40 seats. Clearly, the public has turned away from the military-influenced government.

The country’s oldest political party, the Democrat Party, which was previously the chosen party of Bangkok’s ruling elite, experienced a crushing loss, dropping dozens of seats to win just 25, down from 53 in 2019. In contrast, the Bhumjaithai Party, known for its advocacy of the legalization of cannabis, achieved a respectable 71 seats to become the lower house’s potential kingmaker. However, party leader Anutin Charnvirakul has suggested that the party will not join an MFP-led coalition.

A closer analysis of the election results reveals key patterns and important shifts from previous elections, especially in regard to constituency seats. Different voting patterns prevail between voters in the north and south of the country and between Bangkok and its adjacent urban areas and rural areas, particularly those in the north and northeast. While overall patterns persist, the favorites of these voting groups have changed. 

Bangkok has traditionally been the seat of the nation’s political elite, who could now be described as the “old guard.” Since the beginning of the 2000s, this previously reliable base has been eroded by the party of Thaksin Shinawatra and its offshoots. The rise of these parties, however, has not uniformly swept the capital. Bangkok was previously divided between the Yellow Shirts (who are opposed to Thaksin and his successors) and the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts, and there were heated confrontations between the two factions. While this cleavage has become less salient in recent years, the latest election has thrown this dynamic into clear doubt, with the MFP receiving resounding support in Bangkok and the old guard being wholeheartedly rejected.

What has caused this shift? To begin with, voters are dissatisfied with the military-influenced government’s pandemic policies and are growing tired of the ruling elite. As to why the MFP now dominates the capital, this reflects a desire for fundamental change in Thai society. Thailand’s upper-middle class is booming and along with it has come a slew of new businesses that are not beholden to conventional vested interests and are thus driving change.

Generational change is another key factor to consider and one that is more striking in urban regions. Younger people are pushing the rise of a new set of values, including the importance of a free and fair democracy. The public’s attitude toward the Thai monarchy is also beginning to change as a result of these developments. The surprise election results in Chiang Mai and Phuket, where the MFP cut into the PTP and the conservative ruling parties’ bases, may also be explained by similar shifts.

The question then arises, what next? It remains uncertain who the newly-elected lower house and military-appointed upper house will select as Thailand’s next prime minister. Going forward, the MFP faces several challenges before it will be able to form a government. Namely, how can a coalition be formed where no one party has a majority in either house? And what can we expect from senators of the military-influenced government as regards the vote for the prime minister? 

A “memorandum of understanding” for the next ruling coalition was already signed by the eight parties led by the MFP, including the PTP, but nothing can be taken for granted until the vote is held in August. Although there remains uncertainty in the short term, the change in voting tendencies suggests a fundamental and potentially permanent shift that could transform the direction of Thai politics nationwide, which is certain to be significant in a long run.

Taking a longer perspective, this striking shift in voter behavior may be the start of a new chapter in Thai politics and does not necessarily indicate the beginning of further turmoil. Nation-building, political stability, and democracy remain in a delicate state in many nations, including Thailand, and the pursuit of one can impact the progress of another. 

Internal confrontation in Thailand has resulted from regional divisions, which can be viewed as a symptom of nation-building. That is, the ruling elite in Bangkok has endeavored to build the nation by marginalizing non-urban areas. Moreover, the ruling elite has often claimed that political stability and democracy are incompatible and in this way have justified the overthrow of democratically-elected governments in military coups as a means, allegedly, of securing political stability. 

New voting behaviors in Bangkok could call this mindset into question. The old guard is losing its base and the unified support of the MFP in the country’s capital may be a signal of voters’ hope for the achievement of both political stability and democracy. 

The Democracy Monument where Bangkokians gathered on May 15 celebrates the 1932 revolution, which was the start of a new chapter for Thailand. The latest general election may mark the turning of another page, led by the voters of Bangkok.

This article was written based on the author’s local research in Thailand in April and May 2023.