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Thai voters choose democracy in a stunning election

“This is an earthquake”: Voters this weekend decisively rejected the country’s years-long military rule.

Pita Limjaroenrat, Move Forward Party leader and prime minister candidate, gives a speech during a celebratory parade after winning the most seats in the Thai general election on May 15, 2023, in Bangkok, Thailand. 
Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Progressives — and other members of Thailand’s pro-democracy opposition parties — scored a stunning victory in the country’s elections this weekend, dealing a major blow to military-backed incumbents. Their overwhelming success, which came as a shock to political observers of the region, indicated that Thai voters are interested in a change from the current military-led regime and sent a significant message in favor of a more representative government.

The progressive Move Forward Party, led by Pita Limjaroenrat, is projected to win 151 seats in the House — the highest of any group — while the populist opposition party Pheu Thai, aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, will likely win 141 seats. Collectively, the two parties will now hold at least 292 of 500 seats in the House.

“This is an earthquake, since Move Forward is the first party to directly challenge major Thai institutions like the monarchy and military — the first to call for real institutional reform,” Council on Foreign Relations fellow Josh Kurlantzick told Vox.

The military has long had a hold on Thai politics, a grip only strengthened by military coups in 2006 and 2014. That latter coup was led by current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who ushered in a new constitution that gave the military unprecedented power over government. One of those post-coup reforms threatens Move Forward’s coalition: 376 members of parliament are needed to elect a new prime minister, and the 250-person Senate was appointed by the military.

Move Forward said Monday that several parties have agreed to join its governing coalition, giving it control of 309 of parliament’s 500 seats. That leaves Pita Limjaroenrat 67 votes short of the majority needed to become prime minister. It’s unclear whether the Senate will work to cobble together a military-aligned minority government, or split its support between the two factions.

“The overwhelming landslide by the Move Forward party is an indication that the voters are ready for the country to be led by the people, not the military or the monarchy,” says Tyrell Haberkorn, a professor who studies Southeast Asian politics at the University of Wisconsin Madison. “The question now is if the military will actually listen to the people and step down, as they must, or if they will use their usual tricks to stay in power.”

Thai voters sent a strong message in the election

Voter support for progressives in this election highlights widespread interest in reforms that would dramatically change how Thailand’s government currently operates.

In 2014, the Thai military mounted a coup that unseated a democratically elected government in the country. Shortly after, the current king’s father acknowledged the new, military-led government as legitimate. Since then, Prayuth Chan-ocha, formerly a general, has led the government. And in 2019, he was able to win an election for prime minister amid allegations of irregularities and questions about vote counting delays.

Anger over those elections, the army’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, and the state dissolving the predecessor of the Move Forward Party led to prolonged protests, including by students in 2020 who wanted the military out of government and to reduce the influence of the monarchy, which, along with the army, holds most of the power in Thailand.

The 2014 coup is one of a few that the country has experienced in recent history as the military and monarchy have collaborated to consolidate political power. In recent years, both factions have squared off against the Pheu Thai populist party, which supports social policies aimed at helping the poor. The rise of progressives this year signals a push from some voters for another alternative to the status quo in the form of the Move Forward Party, which has championed institutional reforms.

A key reform that the Move Forward Party has endorsed would alter the Thai lese majeste laws which severely penalize people for criticizing the monarchy, including with up to 15 years of jail time. Those laws led to numerous high-profile arrests during the protests. Other ideas the party backs include getting rid of the 2014 military-drafted constitution, and moving to one that gives the public a greater say in legislating. Collectively, the two reforms signal an interest in shifting toward a more traditional democracy. Such proposals have received immense support from younger voters, who turned out in high numbers in order to support progressive candidates.

“For the first time, it will be possible to bring the monarchy under the law,” says Haberkorn, of the potential influence of a progressive-led government. “There has never been a proper transition to democracy, in which the outgoing military leaders are held to account for the coups they launched and the violence they perpetrated, in Thailand. This election means that it is time for the military to be held to account for the many acts of violence they have committed, including the 2010 crackdown on [pro-democracy demonstrators], the 2006 and 2014 coups.”

Should a progressive-led government actually come to power, Haberkorn added that it could have a tremendous impact in Southeast Asia more broadly, providing backing for democracy and democratic ideals in neighboring countries.

“Rather than collaborating with the dictatorship in Myanmar, a Move Forward party-led government is likely to condemn the military regime and support democracy in Myanmar,” she told Vox.

Although progressive and populist parties have won a sizable number of seats in parliament, it’s not yet clear that they’ll be able to elect their preferred prime minister, or if the military will seek to destabilize the government as it has in past coups.

“The prospect for yet another stalemate in Thai politics — pitting a popular electoral movement with the country’s conservative establishment — still loom large,” says Thomas Pepinsky, a Cornell political scientist who studies the region.

The massive win by progressives, though, suggests that Thai voters are hungry for something different.

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