After a decade of military rule, the nation voted for two of the biggest opposition parties—and for radical reform. Here’s a brief guide to the election—and why it matters.
Remind me about Thailand…
The basic deets:
- Thailand has a constitutional monarchy like the UK—where the king is the titular ruler but has little political power… at least on paper.
- For most of its history, the nation has been under military rule—interspersed with brief periods of democratic leadership.
- There have been fierce protests in the past—almost always led by students. But the government has always managed to clamp them down.
- The target of the people’s rage are two men: the king and the general.
- The current king Maha Vajiralongkorn has long been considered deeply unsuitable for the job—but won out simply because he was the only male heir when his father died in 2016.
- He’s managed to run through three wives, and the fourth and current wife is a former Thai Airways flight attendant, Suthida—who he appointed as his chief bodyguard.
- The King spends most of his time outside the country—primarily in Germany, where he spent the great part of the pandemic holed up in a luxury hotel with his 20 concubines.
- He is one of the wealthiest monarchs in the world with a net worth of $40-plus billion. In comparison, the Queen of England was worth a paltry $500 million.
- Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was the commander in chief of the Thai army in 2014—when he staged a military coup and took power.
- In 2017, the military introduced a new Constitution, which allowed it to appoint a 250-member Senate that plays a key role in selecting the prime minister.
- This came handy in 2019, when Thailand finally held free elections. Even though the leading opposition party won the most seats, the military-controlled Parliament appointed Chan-ocha as PM.
Point to note: The royal family and the military have always been like “siamese twins”—where “one can’t breathe without the other." As Mint noted during a popular uprising in 2020:
Thailand is caught in a quagmire between a monarch unable to even make a show of yielding power and a military that has for generations believed that the spoils of the office must come its way, leaning on the king for its legitimacy.
Since then, the country has been rocked by popular protests calling for reforms in the political establishment and monarchy.
Okay, tell me about this election
Let’s start with the main contenders in the election:
The military’s man: PM Prayuth’s United Thai Nation Party (UTN) made a bid to stay in power—along with two other military-backed parties. UTN ran on conservative values such as peace, harmony and respect for the monarchy. Prayuth warned against “harmful” and “revolutionary change”—appealing to mostly older citizens—positioning himself as the guardian of Thai values.
Opposition party #1: Pheu Thai is linked to former PM Thaksin Shinawatra—who was removed from power by the military in 2006. The telecom baron’s daughter—36-year-old Paetongtarn—is the current party chief and prime ministerial candidate. Pheu Thai ran on a pro-poor platform—promising universal healthcare, debt relief for farmers and expanded welfare programmes.
Opposition party #2: Moving Forward Party is the exciting new political force that has taken Thai politics by storm—fueled by the support of angry young voters. Its leader—42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat—is a former MIT and Harvard grad. He started his political career in 2019—as a member of parliament representing the Future Forward Party. But his party was forced to disband due to allegations against its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. But it was reincarnated as the Moving Forward Party under Pita’s leadership.
MFP has run on a pro-democracy platform—promising a new, more democratic constitution and to limit military power. And it is openly at odds with the monarchy—unlike Pheu Thai:
Move Forward’s most controversial promise is to amend a lèse-majesté law that makes royal defamation punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Mr. Pita has pledged to enact changes to ensure the law isn’t enforced as a political tool against opponents. Hundreds of people have been charged under the law since youth protests erupted in 2020.
The numbers: To the surprise of everyone, Move Forward emerged as the single largest party—winning 151 out of 500 Lower House seats. Pheu Thai—which has always been the dominant opposition force—came in second with 141. The likely reason: there were 3.3 million first-time young voters in this election. The incumbent Prayuth-led UTN managed a dismal 36. There was no mistaking the message sent by the Thai people, according to experts: “It’s a clear rejection of the status quo and a crying call for change and reform.”
Ok, that’s the end of the military then…
Not so fast. The military establishment has spent its time in power well—rigging the system against any challengers. Move Forward and Pheu Thai have agreed to form a coalition along with other parties—but their collective total of 302 seats may not be sufficient. And here’s why:
- Both the upper and lower houses vote to choose the prime minister.
- This means the senate—made up of 250 unelected members solely chosen by the military—could have a decisive say.
- This is the same senate that helped Prayuth become PM in 2019—even though Pheu Thai was the largest party that year.
- To counter its weight, the opposition will have to shore up an eye-watering 376 out of 750 votes—which looks difficult as of now.
Quote to note: A leading Thai politics expert says:
Unless vote results are clear and unassailable, the post-poll government formation process could be drawn-out and stuck in deadlock, whereby Prayuth would remain in charge in the interim. But if the electorate’s choice is massive and indisputable, tricky business to thwart and overturn the outcome, in view of military coups and judicial dissolutions in the recent past, will likely engender social unrest, whereby all bets would be off.
The bottomline: Thailand has indeed taken a great leap forward—but it has quite some distance to go before its democracy is restored.
NBC News, BBC News and CNN have the most on the results. BBC News offers a profile of Pita—who has emerged as the rockstar politician. Associated Press is best on the opposition's difficult path to power.