Opposition landslide in Thailand

The contrast in Sunday’s two elections could hardly be greater. In Turkey, as we saw yesterday, an authoritarian leader outperformed the opinion polls and looks set for re-election. But Thailand’s military ruler has suffered a huge defeat at the polls, with the two main opposition parties winning two-thirds of the vote between them and a big parliamentary majority.

Not that everything went exactly as expected. Most observers thought Pheu Thai, the party of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now led by his daughter Paethongtarn, would win the largest share of seats, even if it trailed in votes (as it did last time). But instead Move Forward, with its appeal to younger and more liberal voters, led with 38.5% of the vote, more than double the 17.3% it won in 2019 (when it was called Future Forward), and won 151 of the 500 seats (up 70).

Pheu Thai was second with 29.4% (up 7.4%) and 141 seats (up five). Then there’s a big gap to the parties that had supported the incumbent government of General Prayut Chan-o-cha: the United Thai Nation Party with 11.9% and 36 seats, Bhumjaithai with 2.9% and 71 seats, the Democrat Party on 2.3% and 25 seats and Palang Pracharath on 1.4% and 40 seats.*

Move Forward and Pheu Thai have promised to work together, and Move Forward’s leader Pita Limjaroenrat says he is ready to become prime minister. But it’s not as simple as that. Under the military-drafted constitution, the 250 members of the (military-appointed) Senate also get to vote on the appointment of a prime minister. If they and the current members of the governing coalition all hold firm, they could deny power to the opposition and either reappoint Prayut or choose another compliant figure.

But in the circumstances that’s a fairly big “if”. To disregard such an emphatic electoral verdict would be to invite civil disorder on a grand scale. Signs are that the military is not up for such a project; Prayut said he has “respect for the democratic process and the election results,” and one of his colleagues opined that “he must have had enough” after eight years in power and would probably retire.

Pita’s proposed coalition commands 309 seats: 292 for its two main parties, and another 17 in total for four minor parties (two of them with only one seat each). That’s well short of the 376 needed to outvote the senators, but it’s more than enough to make life impossible for any military-backed government. And there’s no guarantee that the military’s current allies would stay bought; Bhumjaithai’s votes on their own would be enough to pass the 376 mark, Palang Pracharath has previously expressed an openness to working with Pheu Thai, and even the Democrats may one day decide to live up to their name.

Much more likely that the military will hold its fire for the moment, allow Pita to take office, and wait for an opportunity to present itself. Move Forward and Pheu Thai are very different sorts of parties; harmony between them is unlikely to last forever. If Paethongtarn, for example, were to push for the return of her father it could easily backfire in the way it did for her aunt Yingluck nearly ten years ago. Or Pita’s determination to clip the wings of the monarchy, if taken too far or too quickly, could provide a pretext for some legal or extra-legal intervention.

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* Technical note: Voters get two votes, one for their constituency (of which there are 400) and one for the 100 proportional seats. I’m taking the vote percentages from the latter, as is usual in such systems, but there are some fairly big differences between them; Bhumjaithai and Palang Pracharath both did much better in the constituencies than on the party list vote. Comprehension is not helped by the fact that the official results are available only in Thai; I’ve also used the Bangkok Post’s tally and the report at Thai PBS. Most of the reported vote percentages don’t factor out the informals, so I’ve recalculated them accordingly: my figures generally agree with whoever did the calculation at Wikipedia.

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