Thailand’s top opposition parties agree to join forces after big electoral win

Harry Pearl
Thailand’s top opposition parties agree to join forces after big electoral win Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat (in white shirt), and other members of the party celebrate election results as their caravan passes the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, May 15, 2023.
Jorge Silva/Reuters

Updated at 5:33 p.m. ET on 2023-05-15

Thailand’s two largest opposition parties agreed Monday to enter a coalition after inflicting a resounding election defeat on the pro-military establishment, though analysts say it is far from certain they will be able to take power.

The progressive Move Forward Party won the highest number of seats in Sunday’s vote, beating expectations and edging out the more favored Pheu Thai Party – the populist vehicle of the billionaire Shinawatra family.

Because they lack a parliamentary majority between them, the two parties will need the support of several smaller parties and some senators to overcome election rules enshrined in the constitution that, critics say, gives the military-backed ruling bloc an upper hand in forming a government.

Speaking on Monday, Pita Limjaroenrat, the 42-year-old leader of Move Forward, said he had invited five opposition parties to form a coalition, including Pheu Thai, and he was ready to be prime minister. 

The six parties together could muster about 309 out of 500 seats in Parliament’s lower house, he said – well short of the number needed to govern in the bicameral legislature, but giving them a box seat in post-polls negotiations.

Pita said he was “not worried but not careless” about forces including in the upper house Senate that may try to get in the way.

“It would be quite a hefty price to pay for someone who is thinking of abolishing the election results or forming a minority government,” he said at a press conference in Bangkok.

To minimize economic and political risk, a transition team would be formed to ensure a new government as soon as possible, Pita said.

Pheu Thai Party prime ministerial candidates Paetongtarn Shinawatra (left) and Srettha Thavisin address the media at the party’s headquarters in Bangkok, May 15, 2023.[Manan Vatsyayana/AFP]

The ruling Palang Pracharath Party and the United Thai Nation Party were trounced in Sunday’s election. For many Thais, the question now is whether the military-backed establishment will accept the opposition mandate.

“Theoretically speaking they have legitimacy – but this is Thailand,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University. “We have to wait and see what kind of reaction will come from the current coalition.”

After coming to power in a 2014 coup, and prior to the 2019 general election, the junta led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha changed the country’s constitution to allow 250 senators appointed by the ruling party to vote for the next prime minister.

As a result, a party must be able to win at least 376 seats out of 750 to secure a majority in both houses. 

The identity of the next prime minister might not be known until weeks or months after the vote, as Thailand’s electoral system allows up to 60 days for the release of official results, and parliament convenes two weeks later to vote for the nation’s leader.

On Monday, a group of Southeast Asian lawmakers appealed to the Thai Senate to clear a path for pro-democracy parties to take power after nearly a decade of military-backed rule.

“The Royal Thai Military must open their eyes and ears to what the Thai people are demanding. For years, protesters have taken to the streets, calling for democracy and human rights. They have now backed this up in the ballot box,” Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and co-chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said in a statement.

“Subverting the election results and blocking the formation of a new government by the winning parties would be an unconscionable betrayal that would only result in unrest and instability. We, therefore, urge the military and incumbent government to do the right thing and abide by the will of the people.”

However, experts say some of Move Forward’s liberal campaign promises, including reforms to the constitution, military conscription and Thailand’s strict royal defamation law, known as Lèse-Majesté, could prove a problem with conservative-minded senators.

“Given Move Forward’s position on issues such as the Lèse-Majesté law, it remains to be seen whether conservative senators can stomach voting for a Move Forward prime minister,” said Ken Mathis Lohatepanont, a Thai political science researcher at the University of Michigan.

Amending the Lèse-Majesté law, which human rights groups say that the current government has used to silence dissent, could be divisive even within the opposition coalition.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the 36-year-old daughter of self-exiled former PM Thaksin, said on Monday that Pheu Thai did not support changing the law, only discussing it in Parliament. 

Her party also congratulated Move Forward on its win.

"[We] support Move Forward, who won the biggest votes, in forming a coalition government,” Paetongtarn said.

“We together as a party wish Khun Pita the best of luck in becoming PM of Thailand and forming the coalition government,” said Srettha Thavisin, one of the Pheu Thai’s three prime ministerial candidates, who sat alongside Paetongtarn at a press conference in the capital Monday.

“The people believe in democracy and they want major change – that is the message that the people have given to all of us.”

Path to Power graphic(2).jpeg

As of Monday morning, 99.18% of the vote had been counted with a record turnout of 75.22%, the Election Commission said.

The election signaled an appetite not just for a change of government, but also political reform in Thailand after nearly two decades of military dominance that included two coups, in 2006 and 2014. 

In Sunday’s polls, Move Forward rewrote the electoral map in Bangkok, winning all but one district and scoring victories around the northern city of Chiang Mai, the political stronghold of the Shinawatra dynasty. 

“The victory of Move Forward has a lot to do with its ability to communicate with people, and not just young people,” Titipol, the analyst, said. 

“But if we look at their policies, they have been speaking in the same language as people’s demands. That is why they won in this election.”

Nontharat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwej in Bangkok, and Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai contributed to this report.


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