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Electoral Unease: How Thailand's Elections Could Upset the Royal Establishment

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Deep Dive Article

2007 Thai General Election polling station - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This weekend has been a weekend of elections. Whilst there is a heavy focus on Turkey, and the possibility of Erdoğan being ousted from power, another important vote has taken place on the other side of the globe. Tens of millions of Thai voters have gone to vote en masse to elect a new government. After decades of military involvement in politics, this election is seen as a chance to enact real change in the country. Early polls show Move Forward, a new party promising huge reforms, exceeding every prediction to win 151 of the 500 seats in the lower House of Representatives. Polls put the party 10 seats ahead of the original frontrunner, Pheu Thai. These elections have the potential to change the landscape of Thai politics, and a Pheu Thai–Move Forward coalition could shake the establishment to the core. But first, some background.

The Pheu Thai Party (PTP) is the third incarnation of a political party founded by former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin's original party, Thai Rak Thai Party, was superseded by the People's Power Party. Although both parties were dissolved by the Constitutional Court of Thailand for dubious reasons, varying from electoral fraud to violations of electoral laws. The PTP is the successor to these organisations, and is chaired by Thaksin's daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra.

Pheu Thai has historically been quite successful in Thai elections; in the 2011 general election, they won 47.03% of the vote, giving them 265 seats. The Thai lower House requires a majority of 251 seats, of 500, for a party to be successful. Thus, Pheu Thai, in 2011 formed a coalition with various smaller parties to form a coalition government boasting 299 seats in the house. This government, headed by PTP's Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former PM Thaksin, faced a plethora of problems in their term however.

Between 2013 and 2014, there was a period of intense political instability, organised by political pressure groups associated with the Democrat Party, the former governing party and a staunchly conservative organisation. The Democrat Party itself was originally set up as a Royalist party, and has maintained significant support for both the monarchy and the Royal Thai Army. The crisis was initiated by protests aimed at removing Thaksin Shinawatra's influence over politics. Thaksin had been ousted from government in a coup d'etat, and was living in self-imposed exile to avoid corruption charges. But the anger came from proposed legislation that would have granted immunity to Thaksin and allowed him to return to Thailand.

The political crisis continued to boil over until in November 2013, anti-government protestors stormed various government buildings including the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The unrest ultimately climaxed when, in May 2014 the Royal Thai Army launched a coup d'etat and ousted the Pheu Thai government. Following the take-over, King Bhumibol Adulyadej acknowledged the coup and formally appointed General Prayut, the head of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, to lead the country. The popularity of the monarchy, and their extensive influence over politics in Thailand, meant this endorsement was seen as a legitimation of the coup. General Prayut has ruled ever since.

In 2016, the ruling military junta proposed a referendum on a new constitution. The proposed changes added a new parliamentary body, a 250 member nominated Senate chamber, alongside the 500 member lower House of Representatives. These changes meant the Senate would be appointed by a special council made up of Army, Navy, Air Force and Police officials, alongside other military and Royal representatives. This council has the power to select the candidate for Prime Minister, even if they aren't a sitting politician. Meaning, regardless of the electoral results, the military dominated council has a theoretical final say over who rules the country.

This sets the scene for the controversial elections taking place over the weekend. Thai elections have been mired in controversy, and in the face of an intransigent political and monarchical elite, this election will be no different. The early polls suggest that Move Forward, a progressive party established after the coup, is on track to achieve over 151 seats. This is a clear demonstration by protestors against the military regime. Incumbent Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, who assumed power after the 2014 military coup, has faced intense scrutiny both internally and externally for his dictatorial policies. Many in Thailand see this election as a chance to escape the Prayut regime


Thai social media is awash with images and videos of Move Forward campaigners celebrating their preliminary successes, and spreading victory messages. The party is self-describing the win as the "dawn of a new era" in Thai politics. This sentiment is on display for the world to see, as popular trends and dances associated with Move Forward have dominated TikTok and other platforms. The desire for democracy has swollen to new heights in the country, as the public have grown more disillusioned with the monarchy-military establishment. Ultimately, Move Forward is seen as a breath of fresh air for most Thai people. The party vowed against forming any coalition with parties associated with the 2014 coup, a promise that Pheu Thai had been reluctant to make, showing many Thai voters that they weren’t messing around. Move Forward has promised huge electoral and judicial reforms, and they have the popular support to enact it.

But despite the positive political forecasts, one large obstacle remains. The military appointed senate. All 250 Senators are allowed to join the vote in parliament for the next administration, which would give them the power to block any coalition between Move Forward and Pheu Thai. There is a chance that a Move Forward-Pheu Thai coalition could bring on other parties to outvote the senate, but this still wouldn’t guarantee a victory. The constitutional reforms of 2017 gave the military ostentatious powers over the electoral process, including through the importation of various parliamentary loopholes and manoeuvres to ensure the result they want.

Another challenge is the Constitutional Court. Like much in Thai government and politics, the Court has gone through tremendous reforms and changes in recent decades, and it's steeped in controversy. The Court is made up of one President and eight judges, and has the theoretical power to overturn elections. They were responsible for giving the greenlight for the 2014 coup d’état, and have famously dissolved key political parties before, during or after key elections. Former Prime Minister Thaksin had two of his parties dissolved for hotly debated claims of electoral fraud. This extra-parliamentary body wields tremendous political clout, and political pundits fear it has the power to dissolve Move Forward if it opted to do so.

This would be an incredibly difficult step for the military establishment to take. Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of Move Forward, has already proclaimed himself Prime Minister, and has entered into talks to form a formidable coalition. Representatives from Pheu Thai have confirmed their interest in joining such a coalition. Pita has also issued a stern warning to the military establishment, saying there would be a 'hefty price' to pay if there is election interference.

The Move Forward-Pheu Thai coalition would have a majority of 292 seats, even without inviting any other parties into the fold. If they were to invite another party, such as the Bhumjaithai party who are on track to win 70 seats, they'd have a significantly large majority to oppose any potential interference. At the end of the day, the early results show the dissatisfaction amongst Thai voters. Any potential incursion or interference into the election by the ruling party, or the military would be heavily condemned and criticised. But this doesn’t mean it won't happen.

The Monarchy wields tremendous influence over the Royal Thai Armed Forces, and the military has ridiculous control over the political institutions. Thailand has been plagued by coups, with over 11 coup d’états since the country gained independence in 1932. The monarchists have famously cracked down on any dissent, or any attempt to subdue the Royal household’s influence, and this election could breed the same result. Move Forward have pledged to challenge Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws. These are a wide breadth of laws protecting the monarchy from criticism. Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code reads:

Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years”.

These outdated laws are remnants of Thailand’s absolutist monarchy past, and have been exploited to crack down on any and all dissent in recent years. An infamous example was in 1976 when the Thai police massacred upwards of 100 student protestors, and arrested over 3,000 under these defamation laws, for their criticism of the monarchy.

This presents the challenges facing the opposition parties in this election. Thailand’s political establishment is a beast to be reckoned with. There is a plagued history of electoral interference, constituency boundaries being redrawn, parties being silenced and activists being arrested. If the Move Forward party is able to form a coalition government, it will be a enormous uphill battle to enact any real change in the country, even with the general public behind them. The winds of change have come to Thailand. A general discontent has spread among the populace. But will it be enough to break the rigged political mechanisms that have protected the Royal elite for so long?


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