Thailand’s opposition racked up a stunning majority of the 500 seats at stake in the race for the House of Representatives, dealing a major blow to the establishment parties and the former general who has led the Southeast Asian country since seizing power in a 2014 coup.
The results of Sunday’s general election are a strong repudiation of the country’s conservatives and reflect the disenchantment in particular of young voters who want to limit the influence of the military in politics and reform the monarchy.
But the exact shape of the new government is less clear as post-election coalition talks and behind-the-scene negotiations take center stage.
With almost all votes counted Monday, the Move Forward Party emerged as the big winner. It captured a projected 151 seats in the lower House by winning over 24% of the popular vote for 400 constituency seats, and more than 36% of the 100 seats allocated by proportional representation.
Tailing a close second is the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, whose combined seat total is projected at 141.
The party of incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army general who came to power in the 2014 coup, held the fifth spot in the constituency vote and third in the party-preference tally, for a projected total of 36 seats.
Voter turnout was about 75% of the 52 million registered voters.
Who becomes the next prime minister will depend on a vote set for July that includes all the House lawmakers plus the 250-seat military-appointed Senate, whose members share the establishment’s conservative policies. The winner must attain at least 376 of their combined 750 seats.
Opposition parties have criticized the process as undemocratic. It’s a legacy of the 2014 coup and a new constitution drafted in its aftermath that was meant to ensure that the military and the state bureaucracy, the main upholders of the royal order, continue to hold sway.
Analysts have pointed out that a lot can still happen before the Election Commission even declares the results valid, a process that can take up to 75 days and will almost certainly include legal challenges.
In the past, the commission and the courts have used their authority to disqualify opposition parties.
WHAT THE OPPOSITION WANTS?
Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat tweeted that he is ready to bring about change as the country’s 30th prime minister.
“Whether you agree or disagree with me, I will be your prime minister. Whether you have voted for me or not, I will serve you,” he wrote.
Although he energized younger voters with his progressive agenda, the 42-year-old businessman has alarmed conservatives with calls for reform of the monarchy, the institution that has been traditionally treated as sacrosanct.
In 2019, the Constitutional Court ousted his colleague from Parliament on charges of violating the election law and dissolved the Future Forward party, which then changed its name and leadership to become Move Forward.
It had been supporting amending the draconian law that punishes defaming the monarchy, which according to critics has been used to as a tool to quash political dissent and imprison pro-democracy student activists.
Student-led protests beginning in 2020 openly criticized the monarchy, previously a taboo subject, leading to vigorous prosecutions under the law. They were also dismayed by the dissolution of the Future Forward party, which they believed was an unfair use of state power.
Pheu Thai is led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the 36-year-old daughter of billionaire former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was toppled in a 2006 coup.
The power struggle between Thaksin’s supporters, many of them rural poor who benefited from his populist policies, and his conservative opponents has been fought — sometimes in the street, sometimes at the ballot box — for almost two decades.
In the 2014 coup, Prayuth unseated the government of Yingluck Shinawatra — Paetongtarn’s aunt, Thaksin’s sister — as prime minister. And Pheu Thai topped the field in the 2019 vote, only to be denied power when the army-backed Palang Pracharath Party found partners to assemble a coalition government.
Thaksin, 73, said before Sunday’s vote that he wants to return to Thailand from self-exile, even if it means facing justice, including several convictions on charges including abuse of power and corruption.