Voters defeated Thailand’s Military Rule. What’s next?

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For a Thai establishment, this was the worst outcome imaginable.

With nearly all votes counted in Sunday’s general election, the progressive Move Forward Party – which campaigned to wrest power from Thailand’s conservative power nexus centered on the military generals and the royal palace – opted favorite with 151 seats in the 500-strong Lower House. In second place, with 141 seats, sits another opposition party: Pheu Thai of the exiled billionaire Thaskin Shinawatra, whose populist political machine has been harassed by the Bangkok-based elites and expelled in a coup d’etat in 2006 years of political turmoil.

Meanwhile, the military-backed United Thai National Party of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who led the 2014 coup that defeated Thaksin’s sister when he was army chief, only got 36 seats. in a damning condemnation of his royal administration. economy ran No. 2 Southeast Asia.

“It is a clear rejection of the status quo and an urgent call for change and reform,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The late surge behind Move Forward surprised predictions of a landslide for Pheu Thai, with particularly young Thais – including 3.3 million first-time voters – backing to the upstart party’s bold promises to undermine the political role of brass hats and change the country’s strict royal defamation law. , known as Article 112, which critics say is increasingly aimed at stifling dissent.

Pita Limjaroenrat, Prime Minister candidate and leader of the Move Forward Party, waves to supporters at a stadium in Bangkok, May 12, 2023. (Varuth Pongsapipatt - SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Pita Limjaroenrat, Prime Minister candidate and leader of the Move Forward Party, waves to supporters at a stadium in Bangkok, May 12, 2023.

Varuth Pongsapipatt – SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

“It is now clear that Move Forward has gained a lot of trust from the people and the country,” said Move Forward director Pita Limjaroenrat, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated former executive for ride-hailing company Grab. posted on Twitter early Monday morning. Although Move Forward has previously been popular among young Thais, its bold reformist agenda showed unexpected appeal among older generations as well. “People want change, but they want change more than everyone expected,” said Aim Sinpeng, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.

The result means that “the ability to move forward and the Pheu Thai coalition government has become much more likely,” says Napon Jatusripitak, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Speaking to reporters in Bangkok, Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra – Thaksin’s youngest daughter – said, “We are ready to talk to Move Forward… We can work together.”

Such a coalition, however, would be anathema to Thailand’s establishment, which still has many tools at its disposal to cling to the levers of power. First, the military-drafted constitution mandates that the Prime Minister be elected from a combination of the 500-member Lower House and the 250-strong Senate, meaning Move Forward and a combined 292 votes. Thai – assuming they participate in a coalition – is not alone enough to get the best job for their favorite candidate.

In addition, bodies such as Thailand’s Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission, and the Constitutional Court have all met the center’s claims in recent years. Several parties associated with Thaksin were dissolved as the Party is moving forward, which was a positive precursor to moving forward.

For the conservative establishment, Sunday’s result “is a real solution,” says Thitinan. “But I wouldn’t mark it as a definite hit.”

A man reads a Thai newspaper with a front page on Thailand's general election results, at a press center in Bangkok on May 15, 2023. (Lillian Suwanrumpha - AFP/Getty Images)

A man reads a Thai newspaper with a front page on Thailand’s general election results, at a newsstand in Bangkok on May 15, 2023.

Lillian Suwanrumpha – AFP/Getty Images

What comes next?

Thailand’s Election Commission now has 60 days to officially confirm the result. (During Thailand’s last election in 2019, it took about 45 days.) There will no doubt be intense negotiations between the top three parties – and possibly representatives of the Senate – in the meantime.

Much depends on what the Senate chooses to do. In 2019, he voted with the party that received the largest share of the popular vote. Doing so this time, however, would be like voting turkeys for Christmas, as Move Forward has been openly campaigning to revise the constitution to eliminate the chamber. -democratic face.

However, with the appearance of all the conservative parties, it is not clear who else the Senate could legitimately throw their weight behind without raising a popular uproar. And even if he were to support an armed minority candidate, that person would have a hard time trying to enact legislation, as the Senate has no place in the day-to-day affairs of parliament.

“It is time for the 250 senators to think and decide on their position, whether they would listen to the people’s wishes,” Pita told a press conference on Monday. “If they care about the people, they will not be a problem.”

People cast their ballots for the Thai General Election during early voting day in Bangkok on May 07, 2023. (Getty Images - 2023 Getty Images)

People cast their votes for the Thai General Election at the start of polling day in Bangkok on 07 May 2023.

Getty Images – Getty Images 2023

One option might be for the Senate to abstain altogether, says Napon, although “they will be under a lot of pressure not only from the people but also from the international community not to vote against the will of the people. “

The Senate role could be reduced depending on the actions of the third-placed party, Bhumjaithai, which is currently a junior partner in a military-backed coalition. If combined with Move Forward and Pheu Thai, Bhumjaithai’s 71 seats could help get the coalition closer to the 376 needed to elect a Prime Minister regardless of preference which the Senate has. “I see Bumjaithai as a potential king,” says Napon.

However, that would mean that Bumjaithai would turn back on institutional friends and eliminate his close ties to the palace. When TIME sat down with Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul — currently Thailand’s Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister — in January, he specifically ruled out an alliance with any party seeking to reform Article 112, exclaiming on the monarchy as “our most prestigious institution”.

Anyway, the result is also a huge disappointment for Pheu Thai, who led the polls for most of the campaign but ended up with less than half of their target of 310 seats. One factor, says Napon, was the central role of Thaksin, who is still very bold and has said several times that he intends to return to Thailand.

“Not only young people, but a wider section of the population is completely fed up with this long power struggle between Thaksin and the conservative establishment,” Napon said. “People are looking forward to something new.”

Left: Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted former populist Prime Minister.  Right: Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief defeated him in the polls on Sunday.  (Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg and Jes Aznar - Getty Images)

Left: Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted former populist Prime Minister. Right: Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief defeated him in the polls on Sunday.

Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg and Jes Aznar – Getty Images

Of course, whether the country can truly move forward will depend on the generals staying in their barracks. In a country that has survived 12 military coups in the past 91 years, the impetus for military intervention is huge, although Thitinan calls it a “nuclear option” given the challenges it would face. new.

First, the generals had to explain their philosophy to the international community, as well as deal with the popular protests that would undoubtedly be a putsch. He then had to figure out how to improve an economy still reeling from the pandemic – a task the generals have proven ill-equipped to carry out over the past nine years. left of became torpid. After that, they would have to write a new constitution and somehow hold elections that produce a positive result – despite all the cards being in their favor this time and still failing. However, similar arguments have been made many times before, and it would be foolish to dismiss such foolishness completely again.

“The back is really against the wall here,” said Thitinan. “They’ve done everything they can but they still lost this election big time.”

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