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Thailand’s opposition won a landslide in elections. But will the military elite let them rule?

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Thai voters delivered a powerful message to the country’s military-backed government on Sunday: you do not have the will of the people to rule.

The progressive Move Forward Party, which gained a huge following among young Thais for its reformist platform, won the most seats and the largest share of the popular vote.

Pheu Thai, the main opposition party that has been a populist force in Thailand for 20 years, came second.

Together they delivered a crushing blow to the conservative, military-backed establishment that has ruled on and off for decades, often by turfing out popularly elected governments in coups.

“This is an unmistakable frontal rebuke, a rejection of Thailand’s military authoritarian past. It’s a rejection of military dominance in politics,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University.

Over the last two decades, each time Thais have been allowed to vote, they have done so overwhelmingly in support of the military’s political opponents. Sunday’s vote – which saw a record turnout – was a continuation of that tradition.

But despite winning a landslide, it is far from certain who will be the next leader.

That’s because the military junta that last seized power in 2014 rewrote the constitution to ensure they maintain a huge say in who can lead, whether or not they win the popular vote.

Neither opposition party won an outright majority of 376 seats needed to form a government outright, they will need to strike deals and wrangle support from other parties to form a coalition big enough to ensure victory.

But that won’t necessarily be straightforward.

Dangerous territory

The first thing to know is that any opposition party or coalition hoping to form a government must overcome the powerful voting bloc of the senate.

Under the junta-era constitution, Thailand’s unelected 250-seat senate is chosen entirely by the military and has previously voted for a pro-military candidate.

Because a party needs a majority of the combined houses – 750 seats – to elect a prime minister, it means opposition parties need almost three times as many votes in the lower house to be able to elect the next leader and form a government.

In 2019, coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha won the senate votes which ensured his party’s coalition gained enough seats to elect him as prime minister, despite Pheu Thai being the largest party.

There are also other threats to the progressive movement’s win. Parties that have previously pushed for change have run afoul of the powerful conservative establishment – a nexus of the military, monarchy and influential elites.

Lawmakers have faced bans, parties have been dissolved, and governments have been overthrown. Thailand has witnessed a dozen successful coups since 1932, including two in the past 17 years.

And the purportedly independent election commission, anti-corruption commission and the constitutional court are all dominated in favor of the establishment.

In the progressive camp’s favor, however, is their large margin over the military-backed parties.

“If the results were murky, or if the pro-military parties got more, then we would be looking at manipulation, trying to shave the margins. But the results are so clear and very difficult to overturn now,” said Thitinan, adding that if there were attempts to subvert the vote, there would be public anger and protests.

Move Forward’s predecessor the Future Forward Party won the third most seats in the 2019 election. Shortly afterward, several of the party’s leaders were banned from politics and the party was later dissolved after a court ruled it violated electoral finance rules.

In the short term, that decision ended the threat from the Future Forward Party. But it also, in many ways, laid the foundation for Sunday’s historic vote.

Youth-led protests erupted across Thailand in 2020 after Future Forward was dissolved and a whole new generation of young political leaders were born, some of whom were willing to debate a previously taboo topic – royal reform.

Those calls electrified Thailand, where any frank discussion of the monarchy is fraught with the threat of prison under one of the strictest lese majeste laws in the world.

Many youth leaders were jailed or face ongoing prosecution linked to those protests. But some also went on to create the Move Forward party that swept to victory in the popular vote on Sunday.

That leaves the military establishment now locked in a political battle with a party that has kept the subject of royal reform on its manifesto.

Experts have said another coup would be costly, and dissolving a party with such a mandate would be “drastic.”

“Dissolving a party is a fairly drastic move. If there’s a way of keeping Move Forward out without dissolving them, then conservative politicians would probably prefer to do that. Because it’s not as strong a step in subverting the will that people have expressed,” said Susannah Patton, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute.

“But you can’t rule that out.”

Vote for change cannot be ignored

Move Forward’s allure went beyond the youth vote on which it built its base.

Unofficial results showed the party captured 32 out of 33 seats in Bangkok – traditionally a stronghold for conservative parties.

“What this shows is that people who are living in urban areas are really fed up with the government that the military has provided for almost a decade,” said Patton.

“They are wanting to choose something different, and Move Forward is not just the youth party but actually can attract a wider cross section of support as well.”

Move Forward’s radical agenda includes reforming the military, getting rid of the draft, reducing the military’s budget, making it more transparent and accountable, as well as constitutional change and to bring the military and monarchy within the constitution.

The party’s win over the populist juggernaut Pheu Thai is also significant. This is the first time a party linked with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has lost an election since 2001.

And Pheu Thai’s marginal defeat to Move Forward shows voters’ frustration with the old cycle of politics that pitted populist Thaksin-linked parties against the establishment.

Thailand’s “two party system was already breaking down in 2019, but it’s continuing to break down this election,” said Patton.

In a press conference on Monday, Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat said the party would go forward with plans to amend the country’s strict lese majeste laws – a key campaign pledge despite the taboo surrounding any discussion of the royal family in Thailand.

One of his priorities is to support young people facing jail terms on lese majeste charges, and Pita warned that if the law remains as it is, the relationship between the Thai people and the monarchy will only worsen.

His policies “strike at heart of the establishment,” said Thitinan, and even talking about the monarchy openly “is an affront to the palace.”

The Move Forward leader said Monday that he wants to form an alliance with the four other opposition parties to secure a majority in the lower house.

It could take 60 days before a prime ministerial candidate is endorsed by Thailand’s combined houses of parliament, but Sunday’s vote shows the people are ready for change.

However, if Thailand’s turbulent recent history is anything to go by, that could mean little. The military has shown in the past that it has few qualms about ignoring the popular vote.

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