Three takeaways from Thailand’s 2023 Election

1. Move Forward wins big

The Move Forward Party has over-performed expectations to win this election. At the time of writing, the Move Forward Party is expected to win both the popular vote and the largest number of seats in parliament. By convention, it now has the right to attempt to form a government; the party’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, has said he will now begin assembling a coalition.

Few expected that Move Forward would be able to overtake Pheu Thai. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s parties in its various incarnations, from Thai Rak Thai to Pheu Thai, have won the largest number of seats in every single general election since 2001. For months, Pheu Thai had been predicting it would win a landslide victory. Now, it finds itself in the unfamiliar position of being the second-largest party in parliament.

How did this happen? Demographics certainly played a role, with a newer generation of voters swinging towards Move Forward. The party’s progressive positions on major policies, along with its strong party brand, solidified the support Future Forward received in 2019. At the same time, the time it took for Pheu Thai to clarify its ambiguous stance on a potential partnership with former government parties may have played a role in driving its supporters towards the straightforward Move Forward Party. 

2. It’s over for Prayut

After eight years in power, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s tenure in Government House has almost certainly come to an end.

The United Thai Nation Party was leading in 24 constituencies at the time of writing. Combined with the party-list votes, the party will have enough seats to nominate Prayut for a third term. However, Bhumjaithai came far ahead of the UTN, leading in 64 constituencies, while Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan’s Palang Pracharath party successfully utilized its local networks to lead in 40 constituencies. The only other major government party that did more poorly than the UTN was the Democrats, whose seats were essentially halved. 

With these seat numbers, Prayut would not be able to claim any sort of democratic mandate, unlike in 2019 when Palang Pracharath won the popular vote despite having fewer seats than Pheu Thai. With fewer votes than Bhumjaithai and PPRP, Prayut also has no claim to lead a conservative coalition. It now appears virtually guaranteed that Thailand is headed for a leadership change for the first time in eight years. 

3. A murky road of coalition formation ahead

In a regular Westminster democracy, this election result would mean that Move Forward and Pheu Thai would be most likely to set up a coalition government that would have a majority in the House of Representatives. Thailand, however, is not a regular parliamentary democracy, and several roadblocks lay ahead of any path to the premiership for Pita Limjaroenrat.

Firstly, the Electoral Commission has 60 days before it must certify the election results. This gives it a lengthy period of time for it to disqualify candidates. Given that Pita himself is currently facing an investigation on his ownership of media shares from a defunct company, which detractors say would disqualify Pita from parliament, it is possible that the party could lose a few candidates due to various technicalities. 

Even more importantly, Move Forward would have to tackle the Senate, an appointed body that has the power to join with the lower house in appointing the prime minister. Move Forward’s position on amending the lèse-majesté law means that the party could struggle to attract sizable coalition partners such as Bhumjaithai or Palang Pracharath that may otherwise be willing to partner with Pheu Thai, and it could also be a lightning rod that ensures the Senate would be reluctant to give a Move Forward candidate the prime ministerial nod. At this point, whether or not the Senate would be willing to respect Move Forward’s mandate is still unclear, although some senators have announced before the election that they do not intend to exercise their right to select the prime minister.

Any other alternative coalition also seems unlikely to be able to govern. A Pheu Thai partnership with parties other than Move Forward could be heavily criticized, given that the party ended the campaign insisting it would not join hands with Palang Pracharath. At the same time, an attempt to reassemble the current coalition government would almost certainly lead to the formation of a minority government, which could have enough Senate votes to appoint a prime minister but then fall at the first no-confidence debate, for which only a lower house majority is required.

Despite Move Forward’s triumph at the polls, Thailand is likely in for an extended period of uncertainty as the different parties race to find a way out of this political impasse. 


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