BANGKOK (AP) — Following a stunning election victory in which they together captured a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, Thailand’s top two opposition parties began planning Monday for the next stage in their bid to replace the military-dominated government.
The Move Forward Party, led by 42-year-old businessman Pita Limjaroenrat, placed first in the election, surpassing most expectations. It squeaked past the Pheu Thai party, which had been favored to top the polls.
Pheu Thai stumbled despite the star power of Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former populist prime minister who was toppled by a 2006 military coup and is the driving force behind the party.
“The overwhelming electoral victory by Move Forward and Pheu Thai is a decisive sign that voters want a polity where the people, not the military, decide their future,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, a Thai studies scholar at the University of Wisconsin.
“Voters want a Thailand with free speech, without compulsory military conscription, and where the people’s voices are valued, not something to be silenced or bought,” she said.
Pita said Monday he has been talking to five other parties about forming a coalition government. It would have 309 House seats in total, providing more stability than the 292-seat partnership with Pheu Thai as a sole ally. Parliament selects a new prime minister in July, so has about two months to seal a deal.
Move Forward's supporters drove through the streets of Bangkok on Monday afternoon to celebrate their victory. Pita smiled broadly and waved as a convoy of open trucks took him and other party members slowly through the streets of the old part of the capital.
Thailand for the past nine years has been led by former army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a 2014 military coup and was returned as prime minister after the 2019 election. He ran for reelection on Sunday, but has been blamed for a lagging economy, a botched initial response to the coronavirus pandemic and for thwarting democratic reforms — a particular sore point with younger voters.
“The sentiment of the era has changed and it’s right,” Pita said Monday. “And today it’s a new day and hopefully it’s full of bright sunshine of hope going forward.”
Earlier, as it became clear his party was taking the lead, he tweeted that he is ready to bring about change as the country’s 30th prime minister. “Whether you agree or disagree with me, I will be your prime minister. Whether you have voted for me or not, I will serve you."
Move Forward and Pheu Thai are mostly allied in their opposition to the military’s recurring interference in politics, demonstrated by more than a dozen coups it has staged since 1932, when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, and most recently in 2006 and 2014.
Both parties also favor reform of some aspects of the monarchy, a position that riles the conservative royalist establishment that regards the institution as sacrosanct. Because Move Forward has been more outspoken on the subject, it is regarded as radical in the context of mainstream Thai politics.
With almost all votes counted Monday, Move Forward had captured a projected 151 seats in the lower house by winning over 24% of the popular vote for 400 constituency seats, and more than 36% of the votes for the 100 seats allocated by proportional representation.
Pheu Thai party trailed a close second with its combined seat total projected at 141.
Prayuth's United Thai Nation Party holds fifth spot in the constituency vote and third in the party-preference tally, for a projected total of 36 seats.
Although the numbers place Pita in a favorable position for becoming the next prime minister, he faces a difficult path.
Candidates are handicapped by constitutional rules crafted by the military government to restrain political parties with populist appeals from taking root and upending the long-established conservative order.
The prime minister is elected by a joint session of the 500 members of the newly elected House and 250 senators, who were appointed by the military. The winner must secure at least 376 votes.
The Senate, a stalwart defender of the royalist order along with the army and the courts, voted unanimously for Prayuth in 2019, enabling him to overcome Pheu Thai’s first-place finish and form a coalition government.
There is a strong possibility that Pita will be seen as too radical by some partner parties, and they will have to look for a more moderate candidate.
Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn is the most popular choice of her party base. But her ties to her father, Thaksin, with whom the military has never reconciled since ousting him in 2006, would make winning any support from the Senate difficult. One of Pheu Thai’s other candidates for prime minister, real estate magnate Srettha Thavisin, would stand a better chance in that case.
There are also fears the conservative elements in Thai politics would again employ what critics consider to be dirty tricks to keep a hold on power. Since Thaksin’s fall, they have repeatedly used the courts and so-called independent state agencies such as the Election Commission to issue controversial legal rulings to cripple or sink political threats from opponents. Such efforts would likely stir up vigorous street protests.
“Is the form of coalition that Pita proposed, with 309 seats, stable enough? In a democratic world, it’s the most stable. But in a world of half-dictatorship that has the Senate as an important variable, Move Forward must lever the Senate with the people’s voices,” said Pinkaew Laungaramsri, a professor of anthropology at Chiang Mai University.
“We have to wait and see whether the authoritarians will dare using their illegitimate authorities that go against the will of the people. If they do that, it’s just creating a condition for the people to go back onto the streets,(asterisk) she said.
Associated Press video journalist Jerry Harmer contributed to this report.