- By Jonathan Head
- in bangkok
Thai voters have issued a stunning ruling in favor of an opposition party calling for radical reform of the country’s institutions.
Preliminary results show Move Forward exceeding every expectation to win 151 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives.
He now has a 10-seat lead over frontrunner Pheu Thai, led by the daughter of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Analysts describe this as a political earthquake that marks a major shift in public opinion.
It is also a clear rejection of the two military-allied parties in the current government, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a coup that toppled an elected government in 2014. The ruling coalition won just 15% of the seats.
“We left no stone unturned,” Pita Limjaronrat, 42, the leader of the Move Forward movement, told the BBC. “People got tired of the last decade. Now, it’s a new day.”
Pheu Thai, the second largest party, said it had agreed to join Move Forward and four smaller opposition parties, giving them a coalition with more than 60% of the seats in the new parliament.
However, this is still not enough to overcome the unelected 250-member upper house, which has been appointed by Mr. Prayuth, and allow him to join the vote in parliament for the next administration. And they are likely to object to her progressive agenda going forward, particularly her pledge to amend the controversial lese majeure law.
In the upcoming political negotiations, many Thais fear that the military and its backers may try to prevent the winning parties from taking power. A military coup is unlikely, but another court ruling is possible to disqualify the Move Forward movement on technical grounds, as happened to its predecessor Future Forward in 2020.
Another question is how far forward and Pheu Thai, whose relations in the last Parliament have sometimes been on and off, can work well together. Mr. Pita, a Harvard graduate and shrewd MP, is still unexamined in the harsher art of sticking together and maintaining an alliance.
But this uncertainty does not change the fact that the people of Thailand woke up to a changing political landscape this morning.
“The majority of votes reflect the need to escape the ‘Prayut regime’ and the yearning for change,” says Prajak Kongkirati, a professor of political science at Thammasat University. “It shows that people believe in the demand to move forward for change – a lot more than expected.”
Thai social media was awash with victory messages from Move Forward supporters, who call themselves “organic spectators,” and describe the party’s victory as “the wind of change” and “the dawn of a new era.”
Mr Pita tweeted that he was “ready” to become the country’s 30th prime minister. “We have the same dreams and hopes. Together we believe that our beloved Thailand can be better, and changes are possible if we start working on it today,” he wrote.
“This election tells you that it has only been four years, but people’s thinking has changed a lot, whether in the establishment or the pro-democracy camp,” a tweet read, adding that “democracy cannot be taken for granted.”
It was inconceivable that Move Forward, a party advocating sweeping changes to Thailand’s bureaucracy, its economy, the role of the military, and even laws protecting the monarchy, would win more seats and votes than any of its rivals.
It is no coincidence that these were the same issues that galvanized a student-led protest movement for months in 2020. Some of the Move Forward candidates have been leaders in the movement. And like the 2020 protests, young and motivated voters, many of whom are Move Forward followers, played a huge role in the outcome of the election.
The supportive mood of the young party in the weeks leading up to the election was hard to miss. A new wave of memes has exploded on Thai social media — people taking big steps or leaps in an apparent nod to the Thai name Move Forward.
This was shown in real life at voting booths on Sunday as people took giant, exaggerated steps to show their support. It was the only way to indicate which way they leaned because election rules do not allow voters to state their preferences openly. Others wore bright orange T-shirts, flip-flops and sneakers – the color chosen by the party for campaigning.
Move Forward candidates had fewer resources than their competitors, and had to rely on social media, and sometimes even outdated technology like bicycles, to get their message across. This helped make their vision seem much clearer than other parties.
The Forward Movement has ruled out any alliance with parties linked to the 2014 military coup, a position on which its reformist rival Pheu Thai was initially evasive. The party was also new and bold, and was known in the past Parliament for taking principled positions.
It has also benefited from what appears to be a broad public desire for change. Voters under 26 are not a large bloc in aging Thailand – they make up just 14% of the total 52 million voters – but they have worked hard to persuade older voters to hold back from moving forward to deliver a better future for their generation.
The most pressing question is whether the two reformist parties will be allowed to form a government, despite the mandate for change.
Mr. Pita was upbeat while addressing the media on Monday. “With the unanimous vote that emerged from the election,” he said, “it would be a heavy price to pay someone who is considering annulling the election results or forming a minority government… That’s far fetched at the moment.” .
And I think the people of Thailand will not allow that to happen.”
Additional reporting by Duxony Thaniarat
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