Thailand’s tilt at democracy
18 Jul 2023|

The undemocratic reality of Thai politics was on full display at the first joint session of the Thai parliament on 13 July. The charismatic leader of the progressive and pro-democratic Move Forward party, Pita Limjaroenrat, was blocked from becoming the country’s 30th prime minister by the junta-appointed Senate. Pita had secured the support of 311 of 500 newly elected members of parliament, all hailing from the Move Forward–led coalition.

He also had the backing of more than 14 million Thais who gave Move Forward their party list vote in the May election, earning the party 39 parliamentary seats. This was in addition to the 112 Move Forward candidates who gained the trust of their constituents, helping the party to its surprising electoral victory. Yet all this was not enough to secure Pita the country’s top political office.

Only 13 junta-appointed senators honoured the will of the Thai electorate during the prime ministerial vote. One senator resigned from the Senate a day before the vote; the rest either voted against Pita (34 senators), abstained from voting (159 senators) or didn’t turn up for the vote (43 senators). Pita needed to win at least 375 votes, a simple majority from both houses of the Thai parliament, but he fell 51 votes short.

Pita’s road to the premiership was always going to be difficult, if not impossible, given the design of Thailand’s political system, much of which was crafted under the direct rule of the 2014 military junta. The system was designed to weaken the electoral fortunes of political parties associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has loomed large over Thai politics for the past 20 years despite spending most of that time in self-imposed exile.

Elections used to be Thaksin’s main trump card against the conservative Thai establishment that is centred on the powerful monarchy–military alliance. Having built a loyal voter base in the north and northeast, Thailand’s two most populous regions, Thaksin-aligned parties enjoyed an unprecedented streak of electoral victories. They won all general elections between 2001 and 2019.

Unable to defeat them at the polls, the conservative Thai establishment resorted to unconstitutional means of ousting Thaksin-aligned parties from power via military means. But military coups are costly, and they don’t always work. The 2006 coup did little damage to Thaksin’s popularity, while the 2014 coup created a new ‘enemy’ for the conservative Thai establishment in the Thai youths who were fed up with the country’s undemocratic politics.

Having learned from the failed 2006 coup, the 2014 military junta led by General Prayuth Chan-o-cha designed an elaborate system of ‘insurance’ mechanisms to arrest any real prospects for democracy should elections continue to return the ‘wrong’ result. The junta-appointed 250-member Senate is one of the most striking examples of this. The Senate secured Prayuth another four years in the prime minister’s office following the 2019 election, even though the Prayuth-aligned Palang Pracharat Party didn’t win the most parliamentary seats. Now, in 2023, the Senate is blocking Pita’s chances for the premiership. It’s sobering to think that a couple of hundred people whom nobody voted for can overturn the will of millions, essentially making elections meaningless.

The Move Forward party isn’t giving up yet. A day after the failed prime ministerial vote, it submitted a parliamentary proposal to amend the 2017 military-drafted constitution to divest the Senate of the right to vote for the country’s prime minister. But the devil is in the detail. For any such proposal to succeed, Move Forward needs the Senate’s support, which it’s unlikely to get. The constitution put a five-year limit on the Senate’s right to join elected members of parliament in the prime ministerial vote. That provision is due to expire in May 2024, which is still a long way away.

The Move Forward–led coalition will nominate Pita as the country’s prime minister again at the next parliamentary vote on 19 July, but if he fails to secure enough support that could spell the end of Move Forward’s bid to lead the next government. Move Forward key coalition partner, the Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai party, is already sending signals that it is ready to propose one of its own prime ministerial candidates, putting pressure on Pita to step aside if he cannot win at the next vote. In such a scenario, Pheu Thai may opt to exclude Move Forward from its coalition government and instead join hands with parties backed by the conservative establishment. That would guarantee the Senate’s support for its candidate.

As it stands, several senators are trying to prevent Pita from being renominated in the 19 July prime ministerial vote. But that isn’t the only hurdle Pita, his party and the Move Forward–led coalition face. The Constitutional Court, together with the Election Commission of Thailand, can continue to arrest the country’s prospects for democracy for some time to come without any help from the Senate. A day before the prime ministerial vote, the Election Commission petitioned the Constitutional Court to rule on a media share controversy involving Pita that could lead to his being disqualified from his MP status just like his predecessor Future Forward party leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

On the same day, the Constitutional Court accepted a separate petition accusing Move Forward of wanting to abolish the country’s monarchy. This claim was based on the party’s campaign promise to amend the country’s strict lèse-majesté law. The petition could see the entire party dissolved, much like the Future Forward party. Both of these issues were brought up repeatedly by the junta-appointed senators and members of parliament from the parties aligned with the outgoing Prayuth-led government during the parliamentary debate that preceded the prime ministerial vote. The fact that the Thai monarchy would hardly have been an acceptable subject of parliamentary debate just three years ago doesn’t make the vote’s result any less painful for Move Forward’s supporters.

The unexpected electoral victory of Move Forward in May was in large part born out of the 2020–21 student-led pro-democracy protests calling for reform of the previously sacrosanct monarchy. The 13 July prime ministerial vote was a conservative pushback against the changing tide of Thai politics and the increasingly vocal demands for democracy from Thais up and down the country. Thailand’s political system doesn’t make space for democracy, and while the Move Forward victory was an encouraging step forward, the question hangs on whether the party can translate it into a more democratic future for the country. That will depend to a large extent on the conservative Thai establishment and its willingness to let go of power.

Will the conservative Thai establishment continue to arrest the country’s prospects for democracy at all costs? If so, Thailand is likely to descend into street politics once again, with violence and further military coups back on the table.