Thailand’s Pivotal Election: Initial Thoughts
Thailand’s election, held today Thailand time, was make-or-break for the kingdom. The last election in 2019 was not free and fair, and youth anger (and popular anger overall) has been building for years over poor governance by the pro-military coalition of parties, including their mismanagement of the economy and COVID, and their increasing crackdown on criticism of the royal family. Anger has also been building against the king, who is far less beloved than his father. Amidst massive protests by young Thais, some Thai politicians, including the progressive Move Forward party, have begun to openly question aspects of the monarchy’s enormous power—the third rail of Thai politics—despite harsh lese-majeste rules that can arrest people who make critical statements.
Well before this election, polls predicted a large victory for the opposition pro-democracy parties against the coalition of military-aligned parties. Most polls suggested the Pheu Thai party, long associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his family, would wind up with the most seats in the lower house of parliament. But Move Forward, the most progressive party, will likely win the most seats.
This is a political earthquake. Move Forward was destined to be popular in liberal Bangkok, but its nationwide appeal and the population’s willingness to cast their lot with the most radical of the pro-democracy parties shows just how frustrated many ordinary people are with so many aspects of Thailand’s stagnant economy, politics, royalty, and society. Pheu Thai’s electoral standing has not been decimated, and they are still on track to win a sizable number of seats. But after early polls showed Pheu Thai dominating, not placing first is a setback for the Shinawtra-linked party. This election result may signal the final shift that ultimately diminishes the appeal of Pheu Thai and the Shinawatra family, and moves Thailand toward less personality-based, more progressive parties like Move Forward.
As of writing late Sunday night Thai time, it appears that the pro-democracy parties will together have enough seats to form a coalition majority that would dominate the lower house—over two hundred and fifty out of 500 seats. Pheu Thai’s somewhat disappointing result may stoke tensions between the party and Move Forward, but ultimately the future of Thailand—and the shared aim to end years of military rule—could lead the pro-democracy parties to coalesce in parliament.
The pro-democracy parties’ strong showing in the lower house must be factored in as jockeying for a final government begins. Although Pheu Thai and Move Forward together are unlikely to capture the 376 lower house seats needed to neutralize the two hundred and fifty unelected and usually pro-military senators in the upper house (the entire number of seats in the government is actually 750 including the unelected senators, and so a prime minister technically needs a majority of all 750), the pro-democracy parties’ strong showing might mean not all two hundred and fifty senators will vote against them. Indeed, opposition from the upper house isn’t even a given at this point, since some senators might have qualms about voting against such a massive pro-democracy victory.
If the pro-democracy parties do not obtain 376 seats in the lower house, the Senate, combined with the smaller parties that won the rest of the seats, like Bhumjaithai Party and the Democrat Party—once a pro-democracy party in Thailand but now a shell of its former self—could try to form some unwieldy coalition to block the Pheu Thai-Move Forward democratic alliance.
But such a move—or something worse, like military-aligned judges disqualifying Move Forward and Pheu Thai candidates or entire parties, or even a coup, is not impossible. Move Forward in particular has challenged the power of the monarch (though it toned some of that rhetoric down on the campaign trail) and the dreaded 112 lese-majeste law, and the pro-democracy parties clearly want to reduce the power of the military significantly. And it is still possible that Move Forward’s position will scare Pheu Thai off, and the Shinawatra party will build a parliamentary coalition with pro-military or neutral parties like Bhumjaithai to make Pheu Thai the dominant force in parliament and isolate Move Forward.
Yet with such massive popular support for the opposition, it is much harder than in 2019 for the Senate and the remaining parties linked to the military/monarchy to pull such shenanigans. And were Pheu Thai to ignore this political earthquake and instead band together with other parties rather than Move Forward, including military-linked ones, to gain control of parliament, it would reflect enormously poorly on Pheu Thai. As the party is supposedly committed to democracy, allying with military-linked parties would appear opportunistic and place Pheu Thai’s prime minister at the mercy of an unwieldy coalition, thus making its leader a weak prime minister from the start. Such a move would also dramatically anger the young Thais who believed that both Pheu Thai and Move Forward would deliver this democratic victory. Indeed, there will be a massive amount of pressure on Pheu Thai and Move Forward to immediately begin coalition talks.