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Will Thailand move forward?

This week’s parliamentary vote for prime minister will probably be the most decisive in Thailand after nearly a decade of military rule.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

This week’s parliamentary vote for prime minister will probably be the most decisive in Thailand after nearly a decade of military rule. The key question on everyone’s mind is, will the conservative forces allow the young leader of the Move Forward Party (MFP), Pita Limjaroenrat, to become the next prime minister. The second question naturally follows, which is, if Pita is blocked, what will happen? 

A Very Fluid Situation

Optimism and pessimism, hope and fear co-exist among Thais these days, but with hope definitely on the ascendant. A sense of a new dawn for the country became unstoppable after the MFP unexpectedly won the most votes in the parliamentary elections on May 14, 2023. It won 151 seats, besting its coalition partner, the Thaksin family-controlled Pheu Thai party that raked in 141 seats. Parties controlled by the ruling military regime were left in the dust, gathering a measly 76 seats.

MFP’s rise was mercurial. Founded just five years ago, it came in third in the parliamentary elections of 2019. Then, coming in first in 2023, it won 14 million votes, or 40 percent of votes cast, up from 13 percent in 2019. MFP frustrated every legal maneuver that the military-controlled Constitutional Court threw at it. The Court disqualified Future Forward founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit from serving in Parliament, along with several other winners in the 2019 elections. The Court followed this up by dissolving Future Forward and banning its executives from politics for 10 years in February 2020, only to see it resurrected as Move Forward a month later, with a new leader, Pita, who declared that “Move Forward is the new chapter of Future Forward.” 

Viewed in retrospect, however, these earlier hurdles were not as big as the challenge Move Forward now faces, which is to enforce recognition of the right to form the government and enact promised reforms to the country’s entrenched power structure. To be prime minister, Pita must get 376 votes from the 750 members of the bicameral National Assembly. He already has 312 votes and needs 64 more either from rival parties in the Lower House or the 250-person Senate. Pita says he already has the necessary 64 votes, but this may be part of the psychological warfare leading up to July 13. 

The Dilemma of the Thai Establishment

The military, though discredited, remains a powerful force. The most decisive force that will shape the outcome of July 13 is the Senate, whose members were appointed by the military. The senators consider themselves the guardians of the Kingdom’s three pillars — “Nation, Religion, and the King.” Although some senators have declared they will vote for the “will of the people,” others have announced that they could not support the party that advocates the “overthrow the monarchy.” 

The issue is MFP’s position on the lese majeste law. While sympathetic to the youth-led protest movement’s demand that the royal defamation law be abolished, during the election campaign and after the May election, MFP came out with a position that explicitly seeks reform rather than abolition of the draconian law that imposes long-term jail sentences on those judged to be insulting or defaming the royal family. According to MFP MP Rangsiman Rome, the party’s position is to “reform the law, for instance, by stipulating that one cannot accuse a person of lese majeste simply by running to the police; this has to be done through a legal process handled by one government agency that carefully assesses the charge.” 

But whether MFP’s position is to abolish or to reform the law, the royal palace, with its strong influence on the unelected, hand-picked senators, some observers contend, will be the real kingmaker on July 13.

A New Era in Thai Politics

Whatever happens on July 13, Thailand has already stepped into a new era. The significance of MFP’s stunning victory at the polls has a number of dimensions.

First, the youth vote, that is, Gen Z and Millennials, made the difference in the electoral outcome, which produced and MFP parliamentary contingent whose average age is 39.

Second, the extremely poor performance of the government coalition, along with that of traditional parties like the Democrats that cooperated with the generals, represented a decisive repudiation of military intervention in politics and a call for the generals to return to the barracks and stay there.

Third, MFP’s outstripping its coalition partner Pheu Thai as the country’s leading party, along with collapse of the Democrats, may mean that at last the citizenry has moved beyond the “Red” versus “Yellow” divide that wracked Thailand before the coup of 2014. Pheu Thai had mobilized mainly the rural masses of the North and Northeast in support of Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist politics, while the Democrats had agitated Bangkok’s middle classes in support of the country’s traditional elites. During the May 2023 elections, in many areas, notably the North, Northeast, and Bangkok, significant numbers of former red and yellow antagonists found themselves together in the fittingly orange MFP camp. 

Fourth, MFP ran a strikingly unique campaign by focusing on issues and policies instead of appealing to people’s traditional personal or party loyalties. Unlike the other parties, it did not buy votes, and this was not only because it had no money to do so but out of principle and a conviction that people were tired of the old personalistic, clientelistic politics. Leading up to the May elections, the party assembled a program based on 300 policy positions, from military reform to LGBTQ rights to animal rights, seeking to show the electorate that it was a large tent that had a place for every voter’s special concern.

“We won the soldiers’ votes,” MP Rome told us at a briefing at the party’s headquarters, commenting on one of the more interesting electoral outcomes. “It showed that enlisted men and women agreed with our platform for military reform, which sought to create a truly professional army, where recruits would not be hazed and people would advance by merit rather than by connections.” 

Finally, respect for human rights is a central concern of Move Forward’s program, and this will have major implications for foreign policy, especially towards Myanmar, China, and the United States. MFP parliamentarians have been very critical of the Thai military regime’s support for the junta in Myanmar. That regime has also been close to China and relatively cool towards the U.S. Indeed, conservatives have warned that a Move Forward government will favor Washington. MFP leaders have denied this, though relations with Beijing and Washington will certainly be affected by the strongly pro-democracy party’s emphasis on a “rules-based diplomacy” based on “shared values” which strikes conservatives as Washington-speak.

The Thai establishment is caught on the horns of a very big dilemma. It knows that depriving Pita of the prime minister post on July 13 will be a very costly move, one with consequences that are unpredictable but are uniformly negative for it. But even if it does manage to do this, it seems impossible for it to resist for long the momentum of the Move Forward Party. It hears loud and clear the overwhelming message from the electorate, and that is, to get out of the way of change.

A version of this story originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus and was republished with permission.

* Kheetanat Synth Wannaboworn and Walden Bello are members of the staff of the Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South.

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