Thailand’s new party wins election but has not won power

May 17, 2023
Pita Limjaroenrat Move Forward Party leader and prime minister candidate, speaks to his supporters as they celebrate the party's election results in Bangkok. Image: Alamy/ Chaiwat Subprasom / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

The progressive Move Forward Party has crushed its pro-military rivals and beaten the party that has won most votes in every other election since 2001. But its anti-establishment policies mean institutional resistance is inevitable as it tries to form a government.

Thailand’s national elections were a triumph for pro-democracy forces and a repudiation of the military-backed regime that had ruled since the coup of May 2014.

Voters also rebuffed the Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai Party which had, in differing manifestations, won most seats in every election since 2001.

They instead installed in the leadership position a new party, Move Forward, and a new face, silver-spooned businessman Pita Limjaroenrat. According to Thai tradition, he is now able to make the first attempt at forming a government, but the prime ministership is not guaranteed.

Within hours of the country’s Election Commission declaring on Monday morning that the Move Forward Party had won the election, Pita announced he had formed a coalition that would hold 309 seats in the 500-member lower house. He would be prime minister.

This is an exciting first step, taken amid the jubilation of victory. He simply approached parties in the old opposition grouping (plus one small, peace-oriented party) and ignored all parties in the outgoing government.

The next steps are difficult, for Pita represents an unprecedented threat to the military-royalist elite. Move Forward policies include abolishing military conscription, reforming a harsh and often-used lese majeste law, re-writing the constitution that was drafted under the post-coup military government and introducing more competition into areas of business dominated by big corporations.

There will be military-royalist resistance, supported by the business establishment.

Thailand’s path to the prime ministership is not based on Democracy 101. It was designed initially to help the coup-maker, General Prayut Chan-o-Cha, win the office after elections resumed in 2019. The PM is elected by a joint sitting of parliament – the 500-member lower house and the 250-member Senate. The successful candidate needs 376 votes and Move Forward’s coalition has 309. The Senate was appointed by the military government.

Pita says he is not concerned about the Senate’s role, as Move Forward has a mandate from the people.

Move Forward’s rise has been remarkable. It is Thailand’s phoenix party, arising from the ashes of the progressive Future Forward Party, a new progressive party that won 80 seats in the 2019 election. The Constitutional Court banned Future Forward the next year, over an alleged political donation irregularity.

Pita, 42, the party leader, is from a politically well-connected family that ran a company selling rice bran oil, an upmarket product. He was educated at Bangkok’s elite Thammasat University, the University of Texas (Austin), the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has run the family business and been chief of Grab Thailand, the ride-app and food delivery company.

The party’s base is young, middle class, well-educated and politically active – the youngsters who took part in Bangkok’s anti-military, anti-monarchy protests of two-to-three years ago. They supply energy, enthusiasm and organisational support.

As Sunday’s election approached, the party came from behind in the polls to challenge Pheu Thai’s top position. Move Forward had momentum – the Big M, as American pollsters used to call it – and it took them to the lead.

They went on to win 151 seats, ahead of Pheu Thai on 141. Move Forward won 32 out of 33 seats in Bangkok and is now the main party in central and northern Thailand, including in Chiang Mai, once Thaksin’s stronghold.

Thaksin’s party underperformed badly: a month ago its leaders were talking of winning 300 seats. They won fewer than half their estimate.

But the pro-democracy parties crushed the military groupings. The two main pro-military parties, the United Thai Nation, led by outgoing PM Prayut, and Palang Pracharath, led by his army colleague Prawit Wongsuwan, won 36 and 40 seats respectively.

As Thitinan Pongsidhurak, Thailand’s leading English-language political commentator, wrote during the campaign, voters wanted to see pro-growth policies, policy innovations – and the back of General Prayut.

The two pro-democracy parties won 292 seats – a big majority in the lower house.

If a democratic mandate means anything, Move Forward in concert with Pheu Thai has it.

But Pita has a tough task in getting the Senate to accept the mandate. I am indebted to James Wise, a former Australian ambassador to Thailand, for the insight (in his 2020 book, Thailand: History, Politics and the Rule of Law) that Thailand has not three, but four, arms of government – the judiciary, the legislature, the executive and the military.

The military sees itself as the protector of the pillars of Thai society – Nation, Monarchy and Religion.

It is opposed to the idea that Thailand should abolish conscription. It is vehemently against reforming the lese majeste law (Section 112 of the Crimes Act) that can lead to prison terms of three to 15 years for royal insults.

It is impossible to imagine that King Maha Vajiralongkorn would easily accept a PM who wants to change the law. Military leaders and royalists would be outraged on his behalf.

The plan behind the old military government’s appointment of the Senate was to extend military influence beyond the restoration of popular elections in 2019. A key way of exercising this influence was to give the Senate a power that is close to a veto over the people’s vote for a prime minister. Some senators are already talking of not voting for Pita.

Pita will have to find a way to get around a potential Senate roadblock and could also face problems with the judiciary (a fate that befell his Future Forward predecessor Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit). Thai law forbids people who hold media shares from standing for political office and one of Pita’s political opponents has alleged to the Election Commission that the Move Forward leader owns shares in a company called iTV Plc.

Pita says the shares belonged to his father and were part of his estate of which he, Pita, is executor. If the commission takes up the complaint, Pita could find himself before the courts, just as Thanathorn did.

Politically, Move Forward’s opponents will try to divide Pita’s coalition over the proposed reform of the lese majeste laws, an issue that is not popular among more conservative voters and to which Pheu Thai is not publicly committed.

The aim would be to forge a coalition between Pheu Thai, Palang Pracharath and Bhumjaithai, the party that came third in the election. The three parties hold 252 seats and would not have to worry about a Senate veto.

If the military-royalist forces are not impressed by Move Forward’s mandate, however, there remains a crucial factor for them to consider: interfering with the will of the people would divide society and provoke massive protests that would be damaging to the country.


Thailand post-poll timeline:

May 14: Election
July 13: Election Commission certifies election results
Mid-July: Lower House meeting to elect Speaker and deputies
End-July: Joint sitting to elect new PM, officially announce the PM and the Cabinet
September: New Government

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