Anti-junta parties dominate Thai elections but may struggle to form government

The Move Forward Party and the Pheu Thai Party emerged as the largest parties in the parliament. However, pro-junta parties still have a better chance of forming the government

May 15, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party. Photo: Move Forward Party/Twitter

Thailand’s political landscape has witnessed a seismic shift as results indicate an overwhelming disapproval of pro-government and pro-military forces. According to preliminary results released so far, opposition parties, including the Move Forward Party, have secured more than three-fifths of the seats in the House of Representatives. However, the establishment forces seem better placed to form the government as they have a decisive hold on the upper house, the Senate. Elections were held on Sunday and  99.4% of ballots were counted as of Monday.

While final results are still awaited, especially for the allocation of 100 party-list seats of the 500 seats in the House, it is clear that anti-military parties have a clear lead. The Move Forward Party, which emerged as the largest political bloc, is expected to secure 152 seats, followed by Pheu Thai Party 141 seats, with no other party coming anywhere close to a triple-digit figure.

In the meanwhile, the pro-junta and conservative parties have lost considerable ground. The United Thai Nation Party of incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha came in a distant third in terms of party votes and is only the fifth-largest party in terms of seats. It is expected to get around 36 seats overall.

Other than Bhumjaithai which stands a distant third with 70 or so seats, none of the other ruling coalition partners, including Palang Pracharat Party and the Democrat Party, are expected to get even a tenth of the seats.

Interestingly, the Pheu Thai, which is associated with the prominent Shinawatra family, is no longer the largest political bloc in the parliament. Since 2001, the party and its former avatars, including Thai Rak Thai and the People’s Power Party, have either won outright or have secured the largest number of seats.

Curious Case of Move Forward

The Move Forward is a fairly recent player. In the 2019 general election, Move Forward’s predecessor, the Future Forward Party, under Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit made a grand debut by winning 81 seats.

Move Forward has grown and also changed since then. Despite being founded by the patronage of a billionaire like Thanathorn, Future Forward had managed to bring under its wing several social movements and grassroots organizers. 

This mobilized a significant share of traditionally Pheu Thai-supporters, who were disillusioned both by the dynasty’s stranglehold on the party and the party’s calculated distance towards the victims of the violent fallouts of the 2006 and 2014 coups. 

In 2023, even as Move Forward maintained several of its original campaign planks from 2019, there has been a significant change in its political character. An example of this is its unprecedented sweep in the Greater Bangkok area or the Eastern Thailand region adjoining the Gulf of Thailand.

These two regions – historically conservative and pro-royalist strongholds – delivered a windfall for Move Forward, giving it 79 of the total 94 single-member constituencies. This region alone currently accounts for more than half of the party’s total seat share, indicating a fundamental change in the party’s class character.

Apart from that, the party’s move to include several figures of the anti-government protests both as campaign organizers and candidates, and also its focus on democratization, monarchy reforms, and demilitarization of the government, created a largely urban base that do not associate with long-term grassroots politics and organizing, but engage with short-term issue-based politics. Move Forward’s position on international issues is also unclear with observers speculating that it may take a far more pro-US stance. 

Can the opposition form the government?

However, the key question remains as to who will form the next government. Emboldened by the election results, on Monday, MFP leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat announced an opposition coalition with Pheu Thai to form the next government. The coalition formation was confirmed by Pheu Thai’s Paethongtarn Shinawatra.

The proposed coalition is expected to include Prachachart, a prominent party in the Muslim-dominated southern provinces, the Thai Sang Thai, led by former Pheu Thai leader Sudarat Keyuraphan, and the Seri Ruam Thai Party or Thai Liberal Party. The five parties together have 308 seats.

But the current constitution, framed by the former military junta under Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2017, requires the prime minister to be elected with a joint sitting of both the House of Representatives and the 250-member Senate.

The current Senate is composed entirely of people appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta that took power in 2014, unseating the populist Pheu Thai government of Yingluck Shinawatra. While NCPO is currently defunct, their appointed senators are set to serve until 2024.

In such a situation, any coalition that expects to sideline the military establishment from deciding the next government would require a supermajority of 376 seats in the House of Representatives.

Despite their thumping victory, anti-junta parties are still far short of seats required to form the next government on their own.

To add to that, senators have already started making public statements indicating their disapproval of any future government that intends to reform the monarchy. On Monday, two senators, have made it clear that they will vote against Pita’s bid to prime ministership over his poll campaign to reform the country’s stringent lese-majeste laws.

Moreover, even if a coalition led by Move Forward manages to come to power, its sustainability in the current system is highly suspect. Thailand’s conservative civic-military ruling elites, aided by the country’s judiciary, often ensured that the military’s political influence remained untouched by any popular democratically-elected government.

Elected governments have been toppled and political parties have been forcibly dissolved over spurious charges every time they have pushed for political reform.

Many have expressed wariness of the risk of another coup, if Pita with his vocal support for the democratic protests of 2020 and 2021, and promises of major political reforms, does manage to take the prime minister’s seat.

What’s next for Prayut?

At the same time, the ruling coalition is currently in disarray, even though they are better placed institutionally to form a government. 

A pro-junta coalition would only need 126 votes in the House to elect a prime minister. As things stand, the pro-government parties combined are taking up around 193 seats, which along with the 250 senate votes could easily help them form a government of their own.

But intense political rivalry among the ruling coalition ranks, witnessed in the months leading up to the election, prevents them from moving forward with a coalition of their own.

Prayut, despite his popularity among conservative voters, has polled far worse than some of his coalition partners. Also his public spat with the current Palang Pracharat leader Prawit Wongsuwan and his dramatic exit from the party just month ahead of the elections, makes his prospects of continuing as the prime minister very unlikely, or even part of the upcoming government.