Can Thailand move forward past its historic 2023 election?

by Petra Alderman

Jun 17, 2023 in CEIAS Insights

Can Thailand move forward past its historic 2023 election?

Thai elections usually produce undesirable results for the powerful monarchy-military alliance, whose policy agenda is rarely on the same path as the voting patterns of the Thai electorate. May’s general election was no different, but it was far from usual.

For the past twenty years, Thai voters have thrown their support behind politicians and political parties associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra only to see their choices reversed through contentious court rulings, manipulation of electoral results, political backroom deals, poll annulments, or military coups. Few had expected the general election in May to be any different.

But in an unprecedented turn of events, the progressive, youth-oriented Move Forward Party beat Pheu Thai to first place, ending over two decades of Thaksin’s electoral dominance. A telecommunications tycoon-turned-politician, Thaksin, now 73, is a highly polarizing figure in Thailand. He first rose to power at the 2001 general election, after which he became prime minister, but he quickly divided the Thai electorate over his governance style and pro-poor policies. When his power and popularity started to threaten the old establishment, centered on the powerful monarchy-military alliance, he was ousted in a military coup in 2006. Afterwards, he fled into a self-imposed exile, where he had been since. But having secured the loyalty of the country’s two most populous regions, the north and the northeast, pro-Thaksin parties continued to dominate electorally.

In 2014, a military coup led by General Prayuth Chan-o-cha and his military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), ousted the government of Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck. It was meant to put an end to Thaksin’s electoral dominance. The coup ushered in almost five years of direct military rule, during which the NCPO changed the country’s political system in ways that would make it difficult for any Thaksin-aligned party to gain power again, regardless of their electoral performance. The new system was first put to the test in the 2019 general election. The Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai Party won the most seats but was prevented from forming the government through a manipulation of electoral results. Instead, an NCPO-proxy, the Palang Prachart Party, which finished second in the overall seat tally, formed a 19-party, pro-military coalition government, helping General Prayuth continue as the country’s prime minister.

After spending four years in opposition, Pheu Thai was fired up and ready to win big in the May 2023 poll, mobilizing its traditional strongholds in the north and the northeast. The party even nominated Thaksin’s youngest daughter, Paetongtarn, as one of its prime ministerial candidates to capitalize on the regions’ nostalgia for Thaksin’s pro-poor policies. Its pre-election target was a landslide victory of 310 seats. A tally of this size was always going to be a pipedream but the party was a clear favorite in the run-up to the poll.

Move Forward’s surprise victory, with Pheu Thai coming in second place, was a remarkable achievement for a medium-sized opposition party that refused to engage in vote buying and was up against electoral rules deemed favorable to large parties, such as Pheu Thai. Campaigning on reform of the country’s draconian royal defamation law that has been used to silence critics of the old establishment, Move Forward capitalized on the 2020-2021 student-led pro-democracy protests that were initially triggered by the controversial dissolution of its predecessor, the Future Forward Party. That party stunned the old establishment with a strong electoral performance in 2019 and was later dissolved on politically trumped-up charges.

Like its predecessor, Move Forward is a predominantly youth-oriented party with a strong support base among Gen Z. Its young charismatic leadership and savvy use of social media, especially TikTok, have proved to be immense electoral assets for mobilizing the youth. But in the 2023 election, Move Forward was also able to tap into a broad public discontent with the state of Thai politics after almost nine years of military-led rule. The party’s campaign slogan promised voters that if they voted for Move Forward, Thailand would not be the same as before, while its flagship policies included downsizing the military, rewriting the 2017 NCPO-drafted constitution, and reforming the royal defamation law. These struck a chord with many Thais who had become fed up not only with the nine years of Prayuth-led governments but also with the vicious cycle of military coups, new constitutions, elections won by pro-Thaksin parties, and mass street protests that had defined Thai politics for the past twenty years.

The scale of Move Forward’s victory was stunning. It won 112 constituency- and 39 party-list seats. It won all but one constituency seat in Bangkok, the capital, and broke through many established power networks in the provinces, including Thaksin’s home province of Chiang Mai. To put this in context, in the 2019 election, Future Forward came third after winning 31 constituency- and 50 party-list seats. While this was a significant achievement for a newly-formed party, Future Forward benefitted in no small part from the 2019 electoral system that favored small and medium-sized parties. When this system was changed in 2021, Move Forward was expected to face an uphill battle. The 2023 election was disappointing for Pheu Thai, which won 112 constituency- and 29 party-list seats, indicating that Thaksin’s political appeal might be slowly waning. At the beginning of the millennium, Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party (the first incarnation of what is now Pheu Thai) rose to power by campaigning on new ideas and fresh policies. But twenty years on, Thaksin and Pheu Thai are no longer new or fresh. Many Thai parties have caught up with Thaksin and his campaign strategies, making similar appeals and policy offerings to Thai voters as Pheu Thai.

Pheu Thai’s pro-democracy credentials have also suffered in the wake of the Move Forward phenomenon. Unlike Move Forward, Pheu Thai has decided against supporting royal defamation law reform, a move that would have disappointed many of its more radical supporters and alienated those involved in the 2020-2021 student-led pro-democracy protests. Its reluctance to clearly refute a possibility of a post-election deal with the pro-military Palang Prachart Party during the height of campaigning might have also resulted in the loss of some votes to Move Forward.

Combined, Move Forward and Pheu Thai won 292 of the 500 seats (or 58 per cent) in the House of Representatives, the country’s lower chamber. Meanwhile, parties associated with incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan — the two retired army generals who were behind the country’s 2014 coup and continued to rule the country following the manipulated 2019 election — failed to capture the imagination of Thai voters, winning just 76 seats between them (or 15 per cent).

By throwing their support behind the two main opposition parties, Thai voters sent a clear signal that they wanted to see the end to military-led rule. In a democracy, Move Forward and Pheu Thai would easily form a coalition government and the charismatic 42-year-old Move Forward leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, would become the next prime minister. But Thailand is not a democracy and Move Forward and Pheu Thai are not natural allies despite facing a common enemy in the old establishment. The two parties have an uphill battle to form the country’s next government and success is far from guaranteed.

Their first immediate hurdle is the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court. The Election Commission has 60 days to certify election results. During this time, it can order recounts of election results, investigate election-related complaints, and order election reruns in polling stations and constituencies where there is evidence of misconduct. The Commission has been dragging its feet with the results certification process by ordering recounts in 47 polling stations four weeks after the election day due to alleged discrepancies between the number of registered voters and the number of votes cast. While these recounts are unlikely to change the overall seat tally, they slow down the results certification process.

The Commission can also petition the Constitutional Court to disqualify candidates and dissolve political parties for breaches of election-related laws. While these might seem like standard technical tasks, they remain technical only so long as the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court are politically impartial themselves. And herein lies the problem. The seven commissioners in charge of the 2023 election were appointed by the 2014 military junta, while the nine Constitutional Court judges owe their appointments either directly to the junta or to the junta-appointed Senate.

During the 2019 election, these two institutions played an instrumental role in the dissolution of Pheu Thai’s sister party just seventeen days before the poll. When it became clear that Pheu Thai won the most seats, the Election Commission changed the formula for calculating party list seats post-election, tipping the electoral balance in favor of the pro-military camp. The Election Commission and the Constitutional Court then joined hands to disqualify the leader of the Future Forward Party from his parliamentary seat for holding shares in a defunct media company before dissolving the entire party on trumped up political charges within a year of the poll.

In post-election déjà vu, Move Forward’s leader is also undergoing an investigation for running for office while holding shares in a media company, meaning he faces possible disqualification. If Pita is disqualified from the prime ministerial race and not just his parliamentary status, Move Forward will lose its sole candidate for prime minister. A ruling against Pita might also encourage further action against the entire party, as was the case for Future Forward.

The second hurdle is the fully-appointed, 250-member Senate, another NCPO legacy designed to prevent parties on the “wrong” side of the old conservative establishment from taking power. Handpicked by generals Prayuth and Prawit, the Senate joins the 500 elected MPs from the House of Representatives in voting for the next prime minister during the first joint parliamentary session expected in early August. Any prime ministerial candidate looking to take office needs to win at least 376 votes. In 2019, the Senate voted en masse for Prayuth, affording him four more years as the country’s prime minister. It is unlikely that it will support Pita, especially given Move Forward’s stance on the royal defamation law.

Since Move Forward and Pheu Thai combined control 292 seats in the House of Representatives, falling short of the 376 votes required to appoint a prime minister, Move Forward needed to look for more coalition partners. Given its progressive platform and a commitment to doing things differently, this proved to be a tricky business. A partnership with conservative pro-military parties aligned with General Prayuth and General Prawit was never an option for Move Forward, but many other parties drew a red line against joining the Move Forward-led coalition due to the party’s campaign promise of amending the royal defamation law, effectively quashing Move Forward’s hopes of outvoting the Senate by securing all 376 votes from coalition partner parliamentarians in the House of Representatives.

In the end, six more parties joined the Move Forward-led coalition, but Move Forward had to talk down its pre-election promise of reforming the royal defamation law and exclude it from the memorandum of understanding before Pheu Thai and the six other parties signed it. Together, the Move-Forward led coalition controls 312 seats, which makes a comfortable majority for forming a viable government. But for Pita to have a realistic chance at becoming Thailand’s 30th prime minister, Move Forward still needs to find another 64 votes. These are unlikely to come from the parties that had refused to work with Move Forward, so the only other option is the Senate. Since its stunning election victory, Move Forward has been putting public pressure on senators to respect the popular vote and support Pita as the country’s next prime minister. But four weeks in, the party can only count on support from around twenty of the 250 senators and it will struggle to attract support from more.

Meanwhile, cracks are starting to appear in the Move Forward–Pheu Thai alliance. The two parties are squabbling  over key positions of power, particularly the House Speaker role. Pheu Thai is not used to playing second fiddle and it does not need to do so. Trailing Move Forward only by ten seats, it holds a powerful bargaining chip. Despite its stunning victory, Move Forward is still on the fringes of Thai politics. No other Thai political party comes close to its pro-democracy ideals and progressive policies. Move Forward needs Pheu Thai to form the next government and have a chance of Pita becoming prime minister. But Pheu Thai does not need Move Forward. It could easily form a rival coalition government that excludes Move Forward and maybe even secure enough votes for its own prime ministerial candidate.

Ever the pragmatic dealmaker, Pheu Thai could join hands with several parties that are not in the current Move Forward-led coalition, including Bhumjaithai (71 seats), the Democrats (25 seats) and even the pro-military Palang Pracharat (40 seats) that is led by General Prawit Wongsuwan. Indeed, rumors of a ‘secret’ post-election deal between Thaksin and Prawit have been circulating since  before the election. While Palang Pracharat won only 40 seats nationwide, Prawit wields significant influence over the Senate and is believed to be able to help Thaksin return to Thailand without facing imprisonment, a major incentive for 73-year-old Thaksin who has been living in a self-imposed exile for over 15 years.

For now, Pheu Thai is reaffirming its commitment to supporting a Move Forward-led coalition government but this could change if, for example, Pita is disqualified from the  prime ministerial race (and not just his parliamentary status) or if he is unable to secure enough votes to reach the 376-vote threshold. Too many moving parts remain in this post-election limbo to know whether Thailand can begin to move forward towards a more progressive and democratic future. The Thai people have spoken. Now it is up to the establishment to decide whether it will start respecting the will of the people or whether it will continue to push Thailand deeper into authoritarianism and face another round of street politics.


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