Thailand’s progressive opposition has made early headway in a preliminary election vote count, opening a big lead over conservative parties allied with the military for nearly a decade.
In Sunday’s election, 500 lower house seats are up for grabs, 400 of which are directly elected constituency seats. The rest are allocated according to a system of proportional representation.
With more than 82 percent of Sunday’s vote counted, the Move Forward Party (MFP), a youth-led progressive party formed in 2020, was on track to win 115 constituency seats, and had a 33 percent share of the seats allocated in the separate nationwide ballot.
Pheu Thai (For Thais), the opposition party linked to the billionaire Shinawatra family, looked set to win 112 constituency seats and 25 percent of party-list seats.
The United Thai Nation Party of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who first came to power in a 2014 coup, was expected to win 25 of the constituency seats and 10 percent of the party-list seats.
‘We can work together’
Pheu Thai leader Paetongtarn Shinawatra offered congratulations to MFP on their election success, saying the party with the most votes will get to lead the next government.
“We are ready to talk to Move Forward, but we are waiting for the official result,” she told reporters in Bangkok.
“I’m happy for them,” she added. “We can work together.”
MFP saw a late-stage surge in opinion polls and was banking on young people – including 3.3 million first-time voters – turning out in force to back its liberal agenda, including plans to dismantle monopolies, weaken the military’s political role and amend a strict law on royal insults that critics say is used to stifle dissent.
The unofficial result shows the progressive party doing much better than expected.
“Before the election, I was hoping we would get about 100 seats,” says supporter Phisit Krairot, a 33-year-old engineer who joined the gathering at MFP’s campaign headquarters in Bangkok. “But the real-time updates I am seeing today exceed my expectations already.”
The election is the first in the country since a youth-led uprising in 2020 that broke long-held taboos by calling for curbs on the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, as well as an end to a near-decade of military-backed rule.
The expected changes show a large chunk of the public want radical reforms to the monarchy and military – something MFP has promised – including amending Thailand’s strict lese-majeste laws.
The lese-majeste laws, which forbid the insult of the monarchy, have been increasingly enforced since the 2014 coup. The vaguely-worded Article 112 carries a penalty of 15 years in jail and rights groups say it has been used to punish political activism.
Pheu Thai, which is aligned with self-exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, whose removal in a coup in 2006 set off Thailand’s political turmoil, remains hugely popular among working-class Thai people. Despite Thaksin’s fall, parties linked to the telecoms tycoon have won every election since, including twice in landslides.
Pheu Thai has been banking on nostalgia for its cheap healthcare, community loans and raft of subsidies sweeping it back to power after three of its four governments were toppled. The party has declined to commit to amending the lese-majeste laws, saying they would instead table it in parliament.
But in a kingdom where coups and court orders have often trumped the ballot box, fears persist that the military could seek to cling on, raising the prospect of fresh instability.
Opposition gains would bring no guarantees that either party would govern, however, even as an alliance, due to the military government-scripted 2017 constitution skewed in its favour.
Electing a prime minister and forming a government requires the backing of a majority of the lower and upper houses combined, and analysts expect weeks of horse-trading before alliances are formed and a prime minister is chosen.
Parties must have at least 25 seats to nominate a candidate, who needs 376 votes across the two houses to become prime minister.
The Senate was appointed by the military government and is expected to vote in favour of parties or blocs allied with the military.
Therefore, analysts say Prayuth’s return as prime minister, despite his party’s dismal standing in the polls, cannot be ruled out. After all, it was the same Senate that unanimously helped elect Prayuth to the post in 2019 as the head of a 19-party coalition.
The Election Commission is not expected to officially confirm the final number of seats won by each party for several weeks.