Thai Politics

Thai elections: Early results show resounding win for opposition

By a wide margin, voters rejected the military-backed leadership of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha while handing a clear mandate to Move Forward Party and Pheu Thai. As election workers tally final results, it remains to be seen how the next government will actually come together

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May 15, 2023
Thai elections: Early results show resounding win for opposition
Supporters of various political parties hold placards during the first day of the constituencies candidates registration for the upcoming general election in Bangkok, on 3 April, 2023. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

Update as of 11 a.m., Monday

The early results have largely held, leaving Move Forward Party with the single-most parliamentary seats by a small margin over Pheu Thai. With 99% of constituencies reported, the opposition parties have respective seat totals of 148 and 138.

Thai voters cast a strong vote against the military establishment on Sunday, with early results from the general election tracing a major victory for the opposition.

At about 1 a.m., with 82% of the vote counted, Move Forward Party and Pheu Thai had marked a commanding lead over the rest of the field – and most notably the ruling Palang Pracharath and United Thai Nation, the new party of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha. 

Though the opposition parties drew even for much of the night, by press time the progressive Move Forward seemed to defy opinion polling to eke ahead as the single-strongest group. The final number of seats awarded to each party is yet to be determined, but the two opposition parties are expected to form the next Thai coalition government.

Analysts had seen the election largely as a referendum on nearly a decade of military-backed rule through Prayuth, a former military general who took power through a 2014 coup that toppled his predecessor, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The early results of Sunday’s election seem to offer an electoral rebuke of this leadership and a clear mandate for a new one. But an opposition-led government would likely face hurdles to governance as written into the 2017 constitution pushed by the organisers of the last coup or, as many voters worry, at the sharp end of yet another military takeover.

Either way, Sunday exit polls suggested from the outset that Prayuth had struggled to connect with voters critical of his handling of the post-pandemic economy. 

The prime minister had joined the United Thai Nation after leaving Palang Pracharath due to internal party politics. Before midnight, United Thai Nation leader Pirapan Salirathavibhaga appeared to concede the election in remarks to the Bangkok Post.

“We will not be unorthodox on the matter,” he said, when asked if the party would make way for a new government. “We have done our best during the time we have had.”

The Thai legislature is bicameral, with a total of 750 seats split between 500 in the House of Representatives and 250 in the Senate. 

Voters in Thailand cast ballots on Sunday to directly fill 400 constituency seats for the lower house, with the remaining 100 filled on a party-list basis in proportion to each group’s vote share.

As per the 2017 constitution, the Royal Thai Military appoints all 250 members of the Senate – providing a heavy counterweight to the elected government that could complicate selection of the next prime minister.

Results as of 1 a.m., with 82% of the vote counted, showed Move Forward winning 115 constituency seats in parliament plus a third of the proportional party-list seats. At that same time, Pheu Thai had won 112 constituency seats plus a quarter of the party-list seats. 

The party that ends up with the most seats will lead the coalition.

Beyond the opposition, at that time United Thai Nation had won an estimated 25 constituency seats plus about 10% of the party-list seats. Palang Pracharath was on track to win 40 constituency seats and just more than 1% of the party-list seats.

Both parties trailed the third-place contestant, Bhumjaithai Party, which is led by Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul.

Anutin is also the country’s health minister and was a vocal advocate for Thailand’s decriminalisation of cannabis. He cast his ballot Sunday while wearing a shirt printed with bright green marijuana leaves

Move Forward presses ahead

The emerging victor Move Forward, led by 42-year-old businessman Pita Limjaroenrat, is the second incarnation of a youthful political movement that started with the predecessor Future Forward Party. 

That earlier rendition was dissolved in 2020 by order of the Thai Constitutional Court after a strong showing in the general election of the year prior. Supporters of Move Forward worry the successor party could meet a similar fate before enacting its reformist agenda. This political wish-list includes revising the country’s strict lese majeste law, which punishes perceived insults to the monarchy, and reeling in the power of the military. 

Move Forward had made strong appeals to younger voters, many of whom had participated in the mass pro-democracy movement of 2020.

As midnight drew near, Pita told reporters that he expected Move Forward to win 160 seats in parliament, beating its goal of 100. By about that time, data from the Thai Election Commission showed the reformist party had won all 33 constituencies in Bangkok.

Though it was still unclear as of time of publication which party would lead the new coalition, Pheu Thai leader Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, offered warm words to the competition after midnight.

“We are ready to talk to Move Forward, but we are waiting for the official result,” she told reporters in Bangkok.

“I’m happy for them,” she added. “We can work together.”

Pheu Thai is an electoral powerhouse that has won every ballot since 2001 but has been largely kept from power by court decisions and military coups. 

Paetongtarn, its latest chief, had previously taken a short absence from the campaign to give birth to a son, a development that won admiration from a large swath of the public.

Family ties are an inevitable part of her political tale as the next generation of the Shinawatra political dynasty. Paetongtarn is the niece of the ousted Yingluck and the daughter of the embattled billionaire and populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was himself removed by military coup in 2006 and recently teased a return to Thailand from his long years of self-exile.

With final results still pending, the projected winners will soon need to mobilise themselves to fulfill their campaign promises. This election has seen offerings of some of the biggest stimulus programmes and handouts to date in Thailand – to the tune of about $90 billion in total.

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