GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 683, 28 May 2023

Thailand elections: Victory of democracy
Sreeja JS

What happened?
On 14 May, the Move Forward Party, led by Pita Limjaroenrat, scored a resounding victory with 152 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives, defeating the military-backed parties. Pheu Thai, the populist opposition party led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, finished second with 141 seats.
On 18 May, Pita Limjaroenrat declared that eight parties agreed to form a coalition government with him as the Prime Minister. Pita Limjaroenrat said in a news conference that his "coalition is firmly taking shape" and they have a "very clear map" until the day he officially becomes the Prime Minister. The suggested coalition would have a majority of 313 seats in the House of Representatives. 

On 22 May, the Move Forward Party signed an agreement with seven other parties in hopes of forming a coalition government in July 2023. The seven other parties are Pheu Thai Party, Thai Sang Thai Party, Prachachart Party, Seree Ruam Thai Party, Pheu Thai Ruam Palang Party, Fair Party, and Plung Sungkom Mai Party.

On 26 May, Pita Limjaroenrat issued a "call for unity" remarking that any disagreements coalition parties have are "a trivial matter compared to the task entrusted" to them by the people as a response to the differences between MFP and Pheu Thai regarding the position of speaker. He further said: "Coalition partners must hold hands firmly together and steer the country towards democracy. From now on, all parties should work on fine-tuning their policies so we can succeed in forming a government."

What is the background?
First, the dominance of monarchy and military. Thailand has a history of alternating between democracy and military rule. It has had 12 military coups since replacing its absolute monarchy with a notionally constitutional one in 1932. The conservative political elite in Thailand reflects an alliance between the monarchy and military viewing the MFP and Pheu Thai's calls for democratization as a threat. The 2023 election might be the first democratic election in almost a decade following General Prayut Chan-Ocha's ousting of a democratically elected government in 2014.

Second, Thailand's challenging composition of the lower and upper houses. The country has a bicameral legislature consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives (the lower house) has 500 seats, of which 400 are directly elected and 100 seats are allocated to the parties on a proportional representation basis. The Senate (the upper house) has 250 unelected members backed by the military and monarchy. A prime minister must receive 376 votes, or more than half of the total support of the two chambers; this can be challenging given the Senate's majority of military bureaucracy members. So far, the Move Froward Party has secured 313 votes from both houses combined.  

Third, increasing popular support, especially the youths, for the progressive parties. When General Prayut seized power through a military coup in 2014, he pledged to strengthen the economy. Instead, the country, one of the best-performing economies in the early 2000s fell into a slump because of incompetence and corruption. Thailand's post-COVID economy recovery was slow, and in the last decade, it has only managed to attract minimal foreign direct investment. In 2020 and 2021, Thailand's youth went to the streets to demand General Prayut's resignation and monarchical reform. The older generation is also nostalgic for Thaksin Shinawatra's populist economic policies, which in the 2000s helped Thailand become one of Asia's best-performing economies and a thriving democracy. 

Fourth, the promise of political and democratic reforms by the MFP. 
The MFP became popular among voters because of its promise for change, decentralization of power, reduction in the military's role in politics, abolition of army conscription and amendment of the royal insult law. The population are looking forward to these reforms, and the election results supporting MFP should underline this.

What does it mean?
First, the election results indicate the possibility of restoring Thailand's democracy and its challenges. The vote favours the Move Forward Party and the coalition of eight other parties. However, it will not be an easy road. Monarchy is still a pillar of Thai politics, and any reform or changes to the law backing monarchy and military are perceived as a threat by the conservative elite. The progressive parties will have to be cautious on this point.

Second, the uncertainties over military intervention and the breaking up of the coalition continue to haunt Thailand. Pita Limjaroenrat and his supporters are confident that the coalition led by the Move Forward party will form the government by July 2023. One has to wait and see.

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