Thailand in Flux: A Complex Path to Democracy

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

While the Thai election in May resulted in the pro-democracy coalition led by the Move Forward Party gaining the most seats, the constitutional system and shifting political alliances have allowed the conservative royalist-military forces so far to thwart Move Forward’s charismatic leader from becoming prime minister. This has opened the way for a party of supporters of populist tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted as Thailand’s leader in a 2006 coup, to make its own bid to secure the prime minister’s office – and for Thaksin himself possibly to return home from exile. Thannapat Jarernpanit of Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University analyzes the fluid situation and its implications for progressive democratic reform.

Thailand in Flux: A Complex Path to Democracy

Not a prayer: With Move Forward's Pita (center) blocked from the prime ministership, pro-Thaksin rival party Pheu Thai is bidding to take the reins of power by reconciling with conservative royalist-military forces (Credit: Chaiwat Subprasom / Shutterstock.com) 

Thailand held its general election on May 14, 2023, with 70 political parties and 6,679 candidates vying for the 500 seats in the House of Representatives. Notably, 63 prime ministerial candidates were nominated by 43 political parties. After the election, the pro-democracy coalition in parliament, comprising eight political parties, proposed Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party (MFP), to be prime minister. But Pita’s first attempt to win selection failed due to strong opposition from the 250 senators in the upper house. They disagreed with MFP’s contentious policy to amend Article 112 of Thailand's criminal code, commonly known as the lèse-majesté law under which anyone who defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent could be punished with up to 15 years in prison.

Although the MFP secured the most votes in the election, obtaining 151 seats, the amendment for Article 112 was not included in the memorandum of understanding (MOU) among the political parties in the pro-democracy alliance. MFP needed 375 votes out of a total of 749 in the Senate and House of Representatives, but they only managed to gain 324 votes of the 705 members present (182 votes against Pita and 199 abstentions). In the second vote for the prime minister on July 19, 2023, debates flared between the pro-democracy and conservative royal-democracy (royalist elites and the monarchy) sides over whether Pita could be nominated twice to be prime minister. Then, the Constitutional Court suspended Pita from his duties as an elected member of the House of Representatives, further heightening the tension.

The Office of the Ombudsman filed a petition with the Constitutional Court to reject Pita's renomination as the prime minister and requested that parliament postpone the next vote. Parliament president, Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, decided to suspend the vote pending the court's ruling. This gave the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), which holds the second most seats in the House of Representatives (141 seats), an opportunity to form a coalition government and nominate their own candidate to be prime minister, according to a prior agreement with the MFP. But PTP forged a new deal after negotiations with the Bhumjaithai Party (BP) and the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) to secure support from the military and conservatives. The traditional backroom bargaining game of Thai politics was well and truly on.

BP, led by Anuthin Charnvirakul, and the PPRP, led by General Prawit Wongsuwan, insisted that they would not form a coalition government or support the PTP's prime minister candidate if the MFP remained in the coalition. This shift marked a change in the Thai political dynamic, shifting from the longstanding binary battle between the “red shirts” (groups aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra, the tycoon-turned-populist-politician who served as prime minister from 2001 until he was ousted in a military coup in 2006) and the “yellow shirts” (pro-monarchy forces) to a more complex conflict with the MFP and the PTP, two parties striving for greater democracy, vying for leadership.

The king and they, Saraburi, January 18, 2023: In Thai politics, the monarchy and the military loom large (Credit: Analayo Korsakul / Shutterstock.com)

The king and they, Saraburi, January 18, 2023: In Thai politics, the monarchy and the military loom large (Credit: Analayo Korsakul / Shutterstock.com)

This shift in the political landscape has raised questions about the future of democracy in Thailand. If the political party that gained the most votes in the election, the MFP, finds itself left out of the pro-democracy coalition, this would create an awkward and challenging situation, as the pro-democracy forces would lack enough seats to form a government. They would require support from the senators (250 members appointed by the king on the advice of the National Council for Peace and Order and including military) and their opposition (188 seats).

Pheu Thai would have to join a coalition government with their opposition to secure a majority government without the MFP. This is the math that has fueled the fight between PTP (the pro-Thaksin red shirts) and the MFP (represented by the orange color). Supporters of PTP are angered by the MFP, which they view as an obstacle to forming a coalition government led by Pheu Thai. Conversely, MFP loyalists are outraged by what they perceive as the unfair decisions of the Thai courts, political actions of senators, and the dishonesty of and betrayal by their erstwhile partner.

The complications are only set to deepen as Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin's daughter, announced that her father, who was barred from politics and has lived in exile since he was deposed, would return to Thailand on August 10, 2023. This has swayed the red shirts to rally support for the PTP to form a coalition government minus the MFP. The pro-Thaksin supporters prioritize economic issues and have fond memories of what they consider to have been the populist leader’s successful policies.

On August 2, MFP was officially dropped from the election-winning coalition, and Pheu Thai announced it would nominate Srettha Thavisin, a businessman and ally of both Thaksin and his sister Yingluck (who herself served as PM from 2011 until she was removed from office by a Constitutional Court decision in 2014), for prime minister in a vote that was to take place on August 4.

But what of the MFP? While it has never been in power before, the party with the charismatic Pita as leader had gained popularity among many voters due to its progressive stances on democracy, military reform, marriage equality and social welfare policies. But the party has hit a seemingly insurmountable roadblock in its bid to power: its championing of reforms to Article 112.

The shifting alliances and strategies playing out in the Thai political landscape have actually diminished the power of people's demonstrations to press for change by increasing divisions among the supporters of the different parties. This has undermined the power of the pro-democracy forces and slowed the momentum that led to the MFP winning the most seats in the election. This has prompted a consolidation of conservatism and a counter-movement against the progressive democracy represented by the MFP.

At the heart of this political tussle lies the royal-democracy ideal, where the monarchy is positioned as the superior entity within the political system but not outside of it. The sentiment and creed of royal nationalism have been deeply rooted in Thai society since 1973, continuing into the 21st century under the concept of a nation led by a "democratic form of government with the king as head of state."

As Thailand navigates through these intricate political waters roiled by the results of the May 2023 elections, the future of democracy remains uncertain. The potential cross-party alliance between Pheu Thai and conservative and military-controlled parties could reshape Thai politics, presenting significant challenges to realizing the progressive democracy that many Thais had voted for.

The red shirts' candidate: Srettha Thavisin with Thaksin's daughter Paetongtarn at an election rally in Chon Buri, March 19, 2023 (Credit: Pheu Thai Party)

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Thannapat Jarernpanit

Thannapat Jarernpanit

Research and Development Institute, Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University

Thannapat Jarernpanit is deputy director for academic affairs and research at the Research and Development Institute of Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University in Phitsanulok, Thailand. She is also a lecturer in the Political Science Program at the University’s College of Local Management and Development. She holds a PhD in social science from Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Her doctoral thesis was on “the challenge of morality and cultural forces of emotion in Thai political conflict and polarization”.

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