The Risks for Thailand’s Progressive Turn

By Aim Sinpeng, a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations

The outcome of Thailand’s May 14 national elections risks setting the scene for a period of more radical and contentious politics rather than an era of reformist democratic government, writes Aim Sinpeng.

Amid the euphoria of an election win by pro-democratic opposition parties in Thailand on May 14, it needs to be noted that not all Thais want progressive political change. More than seven million party-list votes went to Thailand’s ruling conservative and authoritarian successor parties, such as the United Thai Nation, Palang Pracharath, Bhum Jai Thai, and Democrat.

While they represent wide ranging political interests from ultraconservatives to pro-marijuana activists, their support base shares a vision of a nationalistic Thailand that preserves the prominence of the military and monarchical institutions. As current Prime Minister and United Thai Nation chief, Prayuth Chan o-cha, has vowed: “If you’re 100 percent Thai, you must respect the nation, the religion and the monarchy.” The enemy of the Thai state thus remains those who disrespect the three institutions.

In an election framed as a contest between progressive democrats versus conservative autocrats, the victory of the progressives was overwhelming. Move Forward Party (MFP), the most progressive and radical party, won 151 seats, followed by Pheu Thai with 141 seats. Other opposition allies – Prachachart, Thai Sang Thai, Seri Ruam Thai, FAIR, Palang Sangkhom Mai Party and Pheu Thai Ruam Phalang – had combined seats of 21. An MoU signed by these parties on the 9th anniversary of the 2014 coup set the terms for an MFP-led governing coalition of 313 seats in the 500-seat lower house.

Although the pro-military conservative establishment suffered a crushing defeat, and Move Forward triumphed in the elections, the extent of conservative sentiment cannot be discounted. Many Thais are not ready for this progressive turn.

The triumph of the MFP, Pheu Thai and its allies at the ballot is not enough for them to govern. The 2017 constitution stipulates that a winning coalition also needs to get votes from the 250 junta-appointed senate, an institutional roadblock put in place after the 2014 coup to maintain the military’s power. While several senators have already indicated they would vote along with the “wishes of the majority”, many will abstain, and some will outright vote against the MFP leadership. The senators and the MFP have had antagonistic relationships over the years, with MFP politicians and senators regularly verbally abusing one another, including telling each other to die during a joint session. “You don’t have to like the military to vote against Move Forward,” as one senator notes.

Even if somehow MFP’s chief, Pita Limjaroenrat, managed to obtain the 376 votes required from both the upper and lower houses to become the next prime minister, an MFP-led coalition government would face many obstacles, notably from the conservative political establishment. Already, a Palang Pracharath Party candidate is demanding Pita be disqualified from politics due to his alleged failure to disclose shares in a defunct media company. Rumours are doing the rounds that conservative elements aim to entice Pheu Thai to defect from the MFP-led coalition to bring its exiled former leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, back to Thailand.

MFP’s progressive vision is often viewed as a direct threat to the nation, the monarchy, and the military. Many of their supporters are drawn from the youth base that wants a more modern, equitable and just Thailand, where politics is about inclusiveness, equality, and justice. They see the roots of Thailand’s vicious cycle of coups and bad elections in a monarchy that cannot be criticised and a military that is too politically involved. Their flagship policies are thus radical and divisive: they want to amend the lese majeste law that forbids the insult of the monarchy and abolish military conscription.

Not all of MFP’s allies agree with their vision of “progressive change”. Pheu Thai is the most antithetical to MFP leadership, despite being seen as natural allies, due to its discomfort with MFP’s stance towards the monarchy and its fall from grace as Thailand’s most popular party – a position it and its predecessors have occupied since 2001. Rallies from some of Pheu Thai’s red shirt groups already began demanding Pheu Thai withdraw from the MFP-led coalition due to MFP’s “disrespect” to Pheu Thai as a prominent and well-established party. None of the seven parties in the MFP-led coalition agrees with the repeal Article 112 of the Criminal Code which makes it an offence to defame, insult or threaten the King, Queen, or heir to the throne. This is an agenda MFP will have to pursue on its own.

Still, it is apparent that ordinary Thais are becoming more progressive and democratic on touchstone issues like same-sex marriage, gender equality, and opposition to dictatorship. According to the Asian barometer surveys, support for military rule has been in steady decline since 2006, when 20 percent of respondents approved of military intervention in politics compared to 10 percent in 2019.  Similarly, support for gender equality in education, job opportunities, and political leadership has dramatically increased in the past 20 years. Sixty-three percent of Thais reported being in favour of same-sex marriage, based on a recent YouGov poll. Thailand also became the first country in Asia to legalise medical cannabis in 2022.

The massive win for Move Forward represents a progressive turn for Thailand beyond just a social issues agenda. The fact it made gains in many Pheu Thai constituencies means the MFP version of progress is resonating more with Thai voters now than ever before. This could mean more radical and contentious politics awaits as the country struggles to accommodate the many divergent visions of a country that has a highly divisive and turbulent history.

Dr. Aim Sinpeng is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations.