Why Thailand’s election outcome matters
28 Jun 2023|

The progressive, youth-focused Move Forward party won the most seats of any party in the recent national elections in Thailand and formed a pro-democratic coalition that is seeking to achieve a majority in the parliament and elect Pita Limjaroenrat, its leader, as prime minister.

It’s a fascinating result that signals a dramatic shift in Thai politics that will have local, regional and global implications. Move Forward advocates wholesale changes to the nation’s bureaucracy, economy, military and monarchy. With record turnout to the polls, the result illustrates voters’ fatigue with the political system and represents a challenge to the role of powerful conservative forces. It also reflects a broader trend of growing mistrust of elites and dissatisfaction with the political status quo.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust in governments and politicians is at a worrying low around the world. Discontent is manifesting in the form of demonstrations, protests and riots. Move Forward’s win reflects the anger and mistrust that has been simmering in Thailand for some time. Since the 2014 coup, Thai politics has been run by conservative royalist and military-based parties. In massive protests in 2020, Thai students demanded reforms to the monarchy and military, calling for the royal family’s power to be curbed and for the lese-majeste law—which outlaws criticism of the monarchy—to be removed. The election result demonstrates that those demands have not diminished.

If Move Forward’s pro-democratic coalition manages to achieve its reformist agenda, the example it sets could change, and perhaps destabilise, the whole Southeast Asian region. As Thailand and its political elite adapt to their new environment, the potential for a backlash from conservative forces should be closely monitored. If that occurs, instability in Thailand is likely.

Many analysts argue that Southeast Asian countries have been moving away from democracy for many years, but if the coalition can get the support it needs for Pita to be elected prime minister, it would clearly buck the trend of ‘democratic decline’. That could then spur a contagion effect and embolden other Southeast Asian citizens to push for democracy.

The election result will also affect Thailand’s role in international affairs. Pita wants Thailand to play a more assertive role in regional issues, and if he becomes prime minister he will likely revise Thailand’s stance on Myanmar, which is currently mainly concerned with placating the military regime. That in turn could shake up ASEAN’s approach to the situation in Myanmar.

Some note that the new government, if successful, is likely to review Thailand’s foreign policy and relations with Western powers—particularly the United States—and reduce Thailand’s strategic dependence on China. According to these analyses, Pita intends to build Thailand’s global profile and shift Thailand back to a traditional ‘bamboo diplomacy’ approach that focuses on flexibility and pragmatism. Other commentary, however, expects continued close ties with China. Either way, the new government will need to be skilled at navigating the growing competition between great powers in the region.

At this stage, it’s unclear whether conservative forces will support the coalition and allow it to form a new government. Pita is unlikely to gain the number of seats needed in the Senate to form a new government without making compromises to his progressive agenda. That could mean forming a government more acceptable to the Senate’s conservative old guard or dropping Move Forward’s flagship proposal to reform the lese-majeste law—which would be very unpopular among the party’s supporters. That said, if the military-aligned Senate does move to block the coalition, it could reignite protests around the country. Thailand’s Election Commission has until 14 July to confirm the results. Whatever happens, reformist ideas seem likely to continue to influence, and destabilise, Thai policy, politics and society.

The significance of this election result for Thailand cannot be overstated. Thailand’s parliamentary procedures mean it will take many months for a new government to assume power. At the time of writing, Pita is trying to cling to the prime ministership and his party’s reform agenda, but he is under considerable pressure. This is a pivotal moment for Southeast Asian democracy, and whatever happens next will affect domestic and regional stability, Thailand’s foreign policy approach and, ultimately, the future of the region.