- By Jonathan Head
- In Bangkok
Thai voters have delivered a stunning verdict in favor of an opposition party calling for radical reform of the country’s institutions.
Initial results show Move Forward beating every prediction to win 151 of the 500 seats in the lower house.
It is already 10 seats ahead of the front-runner, Pheu Thai, led by the son of ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Analysts call it a political earthquake that represents a significant shift in public opinion.
It is also a clear rejection of the two military-aligned parties of the current government, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a coup that ousted an elected government in 2014. The ruling coalition won only 15% of the seats.
“We left no stone unturned,” 42-year-old Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat told the BBC. “People have had enough in the last decade. Now, it’s a new day.”
Pheu Thai, the second largest party, said it had agreed to join Move Forward and four smaller opposition parties, giving them a coalition of more than 60% of the seats in the new parliament.
However, that was still not enough to outvote the 250-strong unelected senate, which was appointed by Mr Prayuth, and is allowed to join the parliamentary vote on the next administration. They are likely to oppose Move Forward’s progressive agenda, especially its promise to amend the controversial lese majeste law.
With political negotiations pending, many Thais fear the military and its supporters may try to block the winning party from taking office. A military coup is unlikely, but another court decision to disqualify Move Forward on a technicality, as happened with its predecessor Future Forward in 2020, is possible.
Another question is how well Move Forward and Pheu Thai, whose relations in the last parliament were sometimes strained, can work together. Mr Pita, a graduate of Harvard University and a seasoned parliamentarian, has yet to be tested in the harsher art of putting together and maintaining a coalition.
But that uncertainty doesn’t change the fact that the people of Thailand woke up to a changed political landscape this morning.
“The majority of votes reflect the need to flee from the ‘Prayuth regime’, and the yearning for change,” said Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist from Thammasat University. “It shows that people believe in Move Forward’s demand for change – more people than predicted.”
Thai social media has been flooded with messages of victory from Move Forward supporters, who call themselves “organic canvassers”, and describe the party’s victory as a “wind of change” and the “dawn of a new era.”
Mr Pita tweeted that he was “ready” to become the country’s 30th prime minister. “We share the same dreams and hopes. And together we believe that our beloved Thailand can be better, and changes are possible if we start them now,” he wrote.
“This election really tells you that it’s only been four years, but people’s mindsets have changed a lot, both the establishment and the pro-democracy camps,” one tweet read, adding that, “democracy cannot be postponed”.
It was once unthinkable that Move Forward, a party calling for wholesale changes to Thailand’s bureaucracy, its economy, the role of the military, and even laws protecting the monarchy, could win more seats and votes than any of its rivals.
It’s no coincidence that these are the same issues that motivated a month-long student-led protest movement in 2020. Some of Move Forward’s candidates have become leaders in the movement. And, just like the 2020 protests, young and enthusiastic voters, many of them Move Forward followers, played a big role in the election’s outcome.
The mood in favor of the young party was hard to miss in the weeks leading up to the election. A new wave of memes has exploded on Thai social media – people taking big steps or jumping in an obvious nod to the Thai name of Move Forward.
And that played out in real life at the voting booths on Sunday as people went to extreme lengths to show their support. It’s the only way to indicate which way they’re leaning because election rules don’t allow voters to express their preferences openly. Others wore bright orange shirts, slippers and sneakers – the party’s chosen color for campaigning.
Move Forward candidates have fewer resources than their rivals, and have to rely on social media, and sometimes old technology like bicycles, to get their message across. It helped that their vision seemed clearer than the other parties.
Move Forward has ruled out any coalition with parties linked to the 2014 military coup, a position its reformist rival Pheu Thai initially shied away from. The party is also fresh and bold, and in the last parliament, was known for taking principled positions.
It also benefited from what appeared to be a widespread public appetite for change. Voters under the age of 26 are not a big bloc in Thailand’s aging population – they make up just 14% of the 52-million electorate – but they have worked hard to persuade older voters to support Move Forward to offer to their generation a better future.
The most immediate question is whether, despite the mandate for change, the two reformist parties will be allowed to form a government.
Mr Pita was optimistic while speaking to the media on Monday. “With the consensus that came out of the election, it will be a heavy price to pay for someone who is thinking of abolishing the election result or forming a minority government… it is a bit far for now,” he said. .
“And I think the people of Thailand will not allow that to happen.”
Additional reporting by Thanyarat Doksone