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Thai election: Big win for opposition, but uncertainty looms

Tommy Walker in Bangkok
May 15, 2023

Thailand's opposition parties have secured a victory in the general election, according to preliminary results. Analysts say it shows the country is ready to move on from military-backed leaders.

Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate, Pita Limjaroenrat, attends a press conference following the general election in Bangkok
MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat is considering forming a six-party coalition governmentImage: JACK TAYLOR/AFP/Getty Images

Unofficial results in Thailand's general election on Sunday show the country's main opposition parties — the Move Forward Party (MFP) and the Pheu Thai party — as clear victors.

The MFP won 151 seats in the 500-seat lower house, beating pre-election favorite Pheu Thai, which took 141 seats. Jointly, both pro-democracy parties crushed the military-backed politicians.

Analysts have said the result shows Thais are ready to begin a new era of governance.

The vote on Sunday was the Southeast Asian country's first general election since 2019, which saw current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha elected as civilian leader. Prayuth, a former military chief, led a coup in 2014 that has seen him stay in power for nine years. It was the first election held since youth-led pro-democracy protests broke out in 2020.

A record number of people — over 75% — cast their ballots in the election. Over 52 million citizens were eligible to vote.

Opposition parties to join hands

The parliament in Thailand consists of a 500-member House of Representatives (lower house) and a 250-member Senate. For the lower house, Thais voted from two ballots choosing 400 constituency and 100 party-list MPs. To form the next government, a party or a coalition needs at least 376 votes.

MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat said he is considering forming a six-party coalition, involving the Pheu Thai party led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. If the alliance is forged, the coalition would hold 309 seats in parliament, which means it would still need support from the Senate members.

Pita told a press conference at his party's headquarters in Bangkok on Monday that opposition parties are ready to form the next government and that he is ready to lead it. Pita has called on the Senate to "listen to the people."

Napon Jatusripitak, a Thai political scientist at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told DW the election results are a "turning point" in Thailand's politics.

"The result signals not only a willingness to move beyond old political divisions between the Shinawatra family and the conservative status-quo [groups], but also robust support for more extensive structural reforms concerning the role of traditional power centers in Thailand," he said.

Political crisis and economic troubles

Most of the general election campaign had centered around Thailand's economy after the country saw a 6% decline in 2020 amid the COVID pandemic. Growth in the kingdom was predicted to be 3.4% in 2022, but only reached 2.8%, one of the lowest in Southeast Asia.

Political parties vying for power promised higher wages, more subsidies and other economic benefits in their campaigns.

The Move Forward Party also vowed to increase annual minimum wages, but the progressive party is more known for its controversial plans to reform the Thai monarchy and amend the country's lese majeste law.

Young Thais, who make up a large portion of the country's voters, actively participated in the 2020 demonstrations, rallying for changes to the law that carries punishments of up to 15 years in prison for defaming or insulting the monarchy.

The MFP stance attracted millions of young voters, with supporting stemming from the party's predecessor, the Future Forward Party, which was dissolved in 2020 by Thailand's Constitutional Court. This was followed by anti-government and monarchy reform protests led by the Thai youth in 2020 and 2021. Clashes and controversies followed as hundreds of protesters and activists have been arrested under the lese majeste law.

What does the future hold for Prayuth?

Prayuth is still prime minister until the election results are officially confirmed. He led the right-wing United Thai Nation Party, which won only 36 seats in the election.

The prime minister had earlier said that if he lost his position as the country's leader, he would retire from politics. Under Thailand's 2017 military and monarch-backed constitution, a prime minister cannot serve more than two consecutive terms, which is eight years. Even if Prayuth were to somehow remain in power, his time as leader would have expired in 2025.

"Prayuth's tenure is most likely over, as his party was not even the largest conservative party," Ken Mathis Lohatepanont, a political science scholar at the University of Michigan, told DW.

"The Move Forward's five-party coalition will allow for a stable government, but it isn't yet clear whether the Senate will block Pita from becoming prime minister," he added.

Analyst Jatusripitak said the coalition will have trouble securing support from the Senate. "However, it's safe to say that the winning margin of the pro-democracy coalition is large enough that any attempts to shape the outcome through party dissolution or court ruling will probably not be enough to get Prayuth's coalition to the number that it would need," he said.

Could Pita be disqualified?

There has been speculation that Pita could even be disqualified from office. Thailand's constitution prohibits a media shareholder from standing in a general election, and Pita has been accused by an opposing politician of owning shares in a de-listed television broadcaster.

If this were to take place, it would be a repeat of what happened to Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the co-founder of the Future Forward Party.

"We cannot rule out anything at this point, including the possibility that Pita could be disqualified from holding office," Jatusripitak added.

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco