By Jan Servaes*
BRUSSELS, 16 May 2023 (IPS) — 39.5 million (or 75% of registered) Thai voters flocked to the polls on 14 May in a hotly contested election that will determine whether Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the general who seized power in a 2014 coup, will be overthrown by his rivals.
There is a widespread feeling that after nine years in power Mr Prayuth has done little to boost the economy. His crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Bangkok in 2020 has also alienated many voters.
Opinion polls showed that many, especially younger, voters wanted change and supported opposition parties that have pledged to restore democratic rule in Thailand and reverse some of Prayuth’s authoritarian policies.
Voters have expressed a clear rejection of nearly a decade of military rule, with election results overwhelmingly declaring two pro-democracy opposition parties victorious. With ballots counted from 95% of polling stations, data from the Election Commission shows the Move Forward Party (MFP) at 14 million first in the result followed by Pheu Thai with 10.6 million voters.
Led by the charismatic Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, a Harvard alumnus with a background in business, the MFP aims to reform Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws, sparking a potential clash with the country’s powerful royalist-military elite. Pita has reiterated that his party will push for a reform of these laws or Article 112, which was part of MPF’s campaign pledges.
Pheu Thai, the most popular party for two decades, hoped for a landslide victory that would allow it to lead a coalition. However, they came out second. Therefore, Pheu Thai leader Paetongtarn ‘Ung-Ing’ Shinawatra, daughter of party patriarch and exiled billionaire Thaksin, congratulated MFP on their success and signaled cooperation in a possible coalition government.
Based on the preliminary results, the MFP won 152 and Pheu Thai 141, together 293, of the 500 available seats in parliament. However, that should also include the 250 ‘military senators’ appointed after the coup who are more inclined to a military government. To become prime minister, therefore, a candidate must have a majority in both chambers – or at least 376 votes.
The ruling two ‘military parties’—Prawit’s Palang Pracharat’s (PPRP) and Prayut’s United Thai Nation (UTN)—have been dealt a humiliating blow (the PPRP won 40 seats and the UTN only 36). Prayuth has already admitted his loss.
Both the MFP and Pheu Thai do not want to enter into a coalition with these parties for the time being. That leaves only Anutin’s Bhumjaithai Party (70 seats), the heavily losing Democratic Party (with 25 seats), the Chart Thai Pattana Party (10 seats) and a few even smaller parties as potential coalition partners to secure a 376-seat majority.
The head of the largest party cannot necessarily lead Thailand or even form a government because the country’s electoral system weighs heavily in favor of the conservative establishment. The 250-seat senate is therefore likely to play a key role in determining Thailand’s next government. And because she was elected entirely by the military, she will probably vote for a pro-military party.
The possibility of a coup has already been speculated by Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University on the Thai Inquirer Twitter account.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) warns: “The Royal Thai Military should open their eyes and ears to what the Thai people are demanding. For years, protesters have taken to the streets to call for democracy and human rights. They have now supported this at the ballot box.”
“Undermining the election results and blocking the formation of a new government by the winning parties would be an unscrupulous betrayal that would only lead to unrest and instability. Therefore, we urge the military and the incumbent government to do the right thing and abide by the will of the people.”
A decision on who will provide the prime minister could therefore take weeks or even months.
* Jan Servaes is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change (https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-981-10-7035-8) and co-editor of SDG18 Communication for All, Volumes 1 & 2, 2023 (https://link.springer.com/book/9783031191411) [IDN-InDepthNews]
Image: Stephff’s world in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand (FCCT) bulletin of 15 May 2023.
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