Thai voters have delivered a clear rejection of nearly a decade of military-aligned rule, election results showed Monday, backing two pro-democracy opposition parties.
The Move Forward Party (MFP), the newest force in Thai politics that channelled the energy of youth-led pro-democracy protests in 2020, secured the most votes.
Led by charismatic 42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat, the MFP wants to reform Thailand’s strict royal insult laws, setting up a potential clash with the kingdom’s powerful royalist-military elite.
Thais went to the polls in large numbers on Sunday after a campaign pitting a young generation yearning for change against the conservative elite embodied by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha.
“I feel like my country has (hope) for the future,” Beam, 29, a personal assistant in Bangkok who voted for the MFP and took part in the 2020 protests, told AFP on Monday.
“People have really opened their eyes.”
But in a kingdom where coups and court orders have often trumped the ballot box, she expressed the fears of many that the result may yet be thwarted.
With ballots counted from 99 percent of polling stations, Election Commission data showed MFP on 14 million in the popular vote followed by Pheu Thai on 10.6 million.
The United Thai Nation party, led by Prayut — the ex-army chief who seized power in a 2014 coup — was a distant third on 4.6 million.
While not declaring victory, Pita said late Sunday that a coalition deal is “definitely on the cards”.
But in a sign of the potential flashpoints ahead, Pita repeated a promise to reform the lese majeste law that invokes harsh prison terms for insulting the monarchy.
This was an issue once deemed untouchable in Thai politics, and which rival opposition Pheu Thai shied from during the campaign.
“No matter what, we will push for royal lese majeste law reform,” Pita told reporters on Sunday.
– ‘Work together’ –
Pheu Thai, which has been the most popular party for two decades, has been hoping for a landslide win that would allow it to lead a coalition.
Pheu Thai leader Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of party patriarch and exiled billionaire Thaksin, congratulated MFP on their success and signalled cooperation in a potential future government.
“We can work together,” she said.
And despite their success, MFP and Pheu Thai still face many hurdles to secure power, due to a junta-scripted 2017 constitution.
The new premier will be chosen jointly by the 500 elected MPs in the lower house, plus 250 senate members appointed by Prayut’s junta.
This stacks the deck in the army’s favour.
Adding to the uncertainty, rumours are already swirling that MFP could be dissolved by court order — the same fate that befell its predecessor Future Forward Party after it performed unexpectedly well at the 2019 elections.
The Election Commission is not expected to officially confirm the final number of seats won by each party for several weeks.
But early Monday it forecast MFP and Pheu Thai to each win 112 out of a total of 400 constituency seats. MFP would then likely secure a greater number of the remaining 100 seats to be allocated to parties on a proportional basis.
– Protest legacy –
This election was the first since the 2020 protest that demanded curbs on the power and spending of Thailand’s king.
The demonstrations petered out as Covid-19 curbs were imposed and dozens of leaders were arrested, but their energy fuelled growing support for the more radical opposition MFP.
“Younger generations these days care about their rights and they will come out to vote,” Pita told reporters as he arrived to vote on Sunday.
MFP sought millennial and Gen Z voters, who make up nearly half the 52 million-strong electorate, but early results indicated their inroads across all demographics.
The party swept Bangkok, capturing every district but one.
It is predicted to also take districts in the staunchly Pheu Thai northern territories — even flipping Thaksin Shinawatra’s home district near northern city Chiang Mai.