The story so far: More than a week after Thailand’s progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) and populist Pheu Thai Party claimed victory in an election that gave a thumbs-down to military-backed parties which ruled on and off for a decade, the alliance on May 22 signed an ambitious deal. The agreement aims to draft a new constitution, end mandatory military conscription and monopolies, and allow same-sex marriage, among other things.
While the youth-led MFP which bagged the most votes, campaigned on the promise to change the country’s controversial lèse-majesté (royal insult) law which prescribes heavy punishment for insulting the Thai monarchy, other allies, including its second-biggest ally Pheu Thai, may not be on board with such a move. Besides, any legislative reform will depend on who gets to form Thailand’s government — a power not automatically given to election winners owing to a constitutional tweak by the military government in 2017.
What did the 2023 Thailand election look like?
The MFP is a progressive party; an earlier version was dissolved and its leader banned from politics on what were widely seen as trumped-up charges. It emerged as the single-largest party in the May 14 poll in a surprise result, garnering 152 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives. Its 42-year-old leader Pita Limjaroenrat capitalised on his popularity among disillusioned young voters awaiting change after eight years of a dour military-backed government. MFP is the only party promising to reform the strict lèse-majesté laws.
Mr. Limjaroenrat, seen as the Prime Ministerial candidate if the coalition led by his party forms the government, could face disqualification if the Election Commission acts on a complaint that he failed to sell shares in a media company before the campaign (a breach of rules)— the same fate that met his party’s founder in 2019.
MFP’s main ally Pheu Thai, the populist party led by the billionaire family of the self-exiled former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, emerged as the second biggest with 141 seats. Pheu Thai drew its support from the rural and urban working class, mainly in the north and northeast regions of Thailand, considered its base built over two decades with schemes like village loans, cheap healthcare, free tablet computers for students and price support for rice farmers.
Other smaller parties in the pro-democracy alliance also managed to secure a significant share of votes. Meanwhile, this election dealt a historic blow to Thailand’s military-backed parties. The United Thai Nation Party, the recently formed party of 69-year-old former military chief and incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha only managed a disappointing 36 seats. Mr. Prayuth’s previous party, the Palang Pracharat, the biggest in the incumbent ruling coalition, also bagged just 40 seats under current leader and Mr. Prayuth’s deputy and military mentor Prawit Wongsuwan, 77.
Another party, the Bhumjaithai (meaning proud to be Thai), which has consistently won enough seats to be kingmaker, secured 71 seats, leveraging its stronghold in the lower northeast. It is led by construction mogul Anutin Charnvirakul, a deputy premier who was also the health minister at the helm of the country’s pandemic response.
Thailand’s turbulent political past
The year 1932 marked the end of absolute monarchy following the Siamese revolution. Since then, Thailand’s military has staged 13 coups. The confrontation between military generals and civilian politicians and activists has been at the root of continuing instability over the years.
In 2001, Thailand had its first elected government which completed a four-year term, under policeman-turned-telecoms giant Mr. Thaksin, who rode a populist wave to victory with his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party. His party promised to steady the economy and offer universal health care, debt relief for farmers and development funds for villages.
However, the ensuing two decades were one of the most turbulent times in Thai politics. Mr. Thaksin’s controversial ‘war on drugs’ killed more than 2,500 people, while scores of lives were lost in the Muslim-majority south in security forces crackdowns, igniting a new round of insurgency.
While Mr. Thaksin did sweep the 2005 polls, his premiership was soon engulfed by a financial scandal and subsequent protests, forcing him to call for a new election. However, the leader got booted out months later in a bloodless coup.
The period post 2006 is often described at Thailand’s “lost decade”. Bangkok descended into a cycle of rallies and riots in 2008. With Mr. Thaksin in self-exile and his successors deposed by the courts, the government of leader Abhisit Vejjajiva struggled for legitimacy after being installed without a public mandate.
In 2010, Thailand saw its most brutal crackdown on protestors, with more than 90 people— supporters of Mr. Thaksin, called the Red Shirts— killed by army firing in Bangkok. Notably, the crackdown was led by the current incumbent Premier and the then-general Prayut Chan-O-Cha. The protest years brought to the fore the deep social cleavage between the rural poor and the wealthier middle and upper classes mostly in Bangkok.
In 2011, Mr. Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck became the country’s first female Prime Minister but her administration too faced protests as she sought amnesty for her brother, still in self-exile. This led to the army carrying out a coup and declaring martial law in 2014 under in the guise of bringing stability to a country in paralysis.
This brought Mr. Prayuth to power and he subsequently led a crackdown on dissent and an expansion of his powers, winning a 2016 referendum to change the constitution. In 2017, the military introduced a new Constitution, allowing the military to appoint a 250-member Senate which would play a role in selecting the Prime Minister.
The military delayed a Parliamentary election, which was then held in 2019 and initially seen as an exercise to transfer power from the military junta to an elected government. However, Mr. Prayuth retained power after the disputed election, resulting in renewed resentment.
What is the role of the monarchy and why has it faced widespread protests?
Even after the end of the absolute monarchy, the Thai King retained god-like status in society and enormous influence in the government. Criticising and even talking about the state of the monarchy had long been a taboo in the Southeast Asian country, and the institution has historically been shielded from public criticism by strict lèse-majesté laws. It has wielded strong political influence, putting its seal of approval on every military coup since the 1990s.
The current monarch, Maha Vajiralongkorn, assumed the throne in 2016 after the death of his father, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was the world’s longest-reigning monarch at the time of his death. The junta gave the new King full control of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the palace’s roughly $30 billion worth of assets— Thailand is the richest existing monarchy. Last year, the King assumed direct control of two Army units.
In 2020, in an unprecedented expression of discontent with the monarchy, widespread protests, led mainly by students spread through the country, asking for a separation of the King’s assets and the Crown Property Bureau. They also wanted to cut the Palace’s share in the national budget and ban the King from expressing his political views— safeguards to prevent him from endorsing future coups. Protestors also rejected the military’s outsized influence in Mr. Prayuth’s government.
This was a long-simmering reaction against Thailand’s economic and political system, seen for decades as serving three privileged groups— the one per cent of the population owning two-thirds of all Thai assets, the financially-privileged military which is intertwined with state enterprises, and the world’s richest monarchy.
What does the recent victory of progressive parties signify?
The current election is the first since the major pro-democracy protests of 2020 and the second since the 2014 coup, afterthe 2019 elections which were not seen as free and fair. The fact that Thai people came out in record numbers (a 75% voter turnout) to vote for a young party promising historic reforms and reject the influential military-backed parties is being considered a tectonic shift in the country’s politics.
The overwhelming support for MFP, the only party pledging to change lèse-majesté laws, also showed how the anti-monarchy sentiment of 2020 translated into an electoral mandate. The support for the populist Pheu Thai party also indicated conservative working-class fatigue, and a population seeking an end to corruption and army influence.
Will the election winners get to form the government?
The winner of Sunday’s vote is not assured the right to form the new government. A joint session of the 500-seat House of Representatives and the 250-member Senate will be held in July to select the new prime minister. This process is widely seen as undemocratic because the senators, appointed by the military rather than elected, vote along with Sunday’s winning lawmakers.
While Mr. Limjaroenrat claims that his alliance led by the MFP comprises 313 seats, he will need the backing of 376 legislators in the House to be voted in. Besides, the alliance will need to win over some of the 250 members of the conservative-leaning Senate, which is usually inclined to support military-backed parties. However, such an alliance, even if it forms a government, might face the threat of military intervention due to MFP’s radical pledge to change the monarchy laws.
There is also another alliance scenario, interestingly, without the largest vote-getting party. While the populist Pheu Thai party is making strong calls for a government led by MFP, analysts say it could also tie up with Bhumjaithai, which placed third, as well as the current ruling party, Palang Pracharat.
In yet another potentially contentious scenario, the military-backed parties could form a minority government with the Senate’s support, going against the will of the electorate.
Meanwhile, if no compromise is reached, Thailand could witness months of deadlock without a working government, since there is no constitutional deadline to form a government.
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