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Goodbye General Prayut? Reflections on Thailand’s 2023 General Election

Elections, particularly general ones, involve fundamental choices that affect the world’s political norms and ideologies. Recent elections in several established democracies, such as the United States, Brazil, and Italy, have resulted in upheavals. In Thailand, however, voters had a chance to promote a free and fair democracy after the coup d’etat ousted Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government nine years ago. The 2023 election promised to disrupt the establishment, unlike the 2019 election, which was designed to ensure military victory. The junta faced challenges in the latest election, as Pheu Thai and Move Forward gained early leads in the opinion polls. This article explores how the electorate’s shift away from traditional conservatism and the populist policies of Pheu Thai and Move Forward’s fresh ideas offer hope for a Kingdom needing democratisation.

Before campaigning could even begin, the government was on the back foot with party infighting, Constitutional Court involvement, and generally poor economic performance putting Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha in the dark. Rumours spiralled out of control on the relationship between the governing party’s top two generals – Prayut Chan-o-Cha, and his Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. Statements from Government House were coming out almost daily, claiming that there was no rift and that the two generals were like brothers; this seemingly was not the case. By November 2022, Prayut jumped ship to join the United Thai Nation Party as their premier candidate leaving Prawit in charge of PPRP. Despite Prayut being suspended and later acquitted throughout August for breaches of longevity as Prime Minister, this left Prawit as the caretaker PM for around a month; this is sure to have disturbed already failing reactions between the Kingdom’s two most powerful political puppeteers. Party infighting alongside a stalling economy partly due to Covid-19 and with GDP growth of a modest 3.8% this year compared to neighbouring countries. Economic prosperity has been nowhere under the junta government. But despite these two parties stemming from the pro-military establishment, there is ease from remaining in government thanks to the military-appointed Senate; their political force quickly dwindled before it could begin for election campaigning.

Initially, Pheu Thai, known for landslide victories in 2001 and 2011, was eying up for a third landslide taking over 300 seats in the House of Representatives. Pheu Thai, formally known as Thai Rak Thai, was set up by business telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. His popularity amongst Isan municipalities and working-class people of the Kingdom was gained through populist policies and a clear rejection of the Bangkok establishment. Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006 for disloyalty to the King and allegations of cronyism and corruption. While in exile, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra won in 2011. Still, she was once again ousted in 2014 by General Prayut Chan-o-Cha for corruption over a rice farmer scheme and fundamentally proposing an amnesty bill to see Thaksin’s return. This time, Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, known as Ung Ing, was leading the party. By this point, the party essentially looked like a family business with no real change from what the party looked like over twenty years ago. The stain of Thaksin still haunts many Thais, with trust in Pheu Thai diminishing throughout the campaign. Populist financial handouts were no longer the star talking point of what the party could offer, with almost every major party shouting in the echo chamber of handouts for all Thais. Pheu Thai offered 10,000 THB for every adult, whilst other parties offered 3,000 THB monthly for the elderly to grants for villages and community banks of 200,000 THB. With populist policies foaming out the mouths of every party, the fundamental issue of democratic integrity was cut through by a party which took the country by surprise in the 2019 election and built a reputation of rebelling against the country’s status quo.

Future Forward became a sign of what the kingdom could be, transparent, progressive, but most importantly, democratic. Taking around 80 seats in 2019, their objective was to build up to 100 for 2023; however, a month after coming into parliament, the party was dismissed by the Constitutional Court, and their leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was banned as an MP, sparking widespread protests. Rebranding took place with Move Forward, MFP, as the direct replacement for Future Forward. The pro-democracy protests spiralled into reform of the Royal Household – a strictly prohibited and taboo discussion, with the lèse-majesté sentences some of the strictest in the world. While the Move Forward party did not organise these protests, the anger towards the junta and mishandling of the country gave Move Forward the exposure to show the Thai people that the three priorities of the party are achievable but must happen to revive the lost decade under the management of Prayut Chan-o-Cha and his military cronies.

Move Forward’s candidate for Prime Minister, Pita Limjaroenrat, quickly proved popular amongst voters. Prioritising decentralising, demonopolising, and demilitarising the country as the three pillars of the party gave clear and distinct policies for change. A word that the country hears but is never acted on. Throughout the campaign, waves of orange replaced the red of Pheu Thai, with the youth vote strongly backing MFP, but most notably, older generations were noticing and putting faith in this new party. Whilst Pheu Thai may have been the original pick, the toxicity around Thaksin still lingers, and candidates are just old-blood politicians in new clothing or the children of veteran politicians. What stood MFP apart was the candidates were new to the scene and taking the establishment head-on. Anti-junta demonstrators and those who may have supported the coup in 2014 are fed up with the country’s current direction and came into unison to shake the electoral map. Gruelling campaigning saw the early glimpse of a Pheu Thai landslide shift into where Pita was the favourite to be Prime Minister and possibly take a large chunk of their seats. With the election on Sunday, 14 May, parties took their last stab at getting their supporters to encourage the electorate to vote, with the final rallies taking place on Friday.

At first, Pheu Thai had its sights set on a third landslide victory, aiming to secure over 300 seats in the House of Representatives. The party, formerly known as Thai Rak Thai, was established by telecommunications businessman Thaksin Shinawatra. He gained immense popularity among working-class citizens and Isan municipalities through his populist policies and rejection of the Bangkok establishment. Thaksin was overthrown in a 2006 coup for alleged disloyalty to the King and corruption. His sister Yingluck Shinawatra won in 2011 but was ousted in 2014 by General Prayut Chan-o-Cha over corruption allegations and her proposal of an amnesty bill to bring Thaksin back. In the 2019 election, Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, also known as Ung Ing, led the party. However, the party had not undergone significant changes and was perceived by some as a family business. Trust in Pheu Thai had also diminished due to Thaksin’s controversial reputation. While populist financial handouts were once a key talking point, other parties offered similar policies. The election was ultimately won by a party that challenged the status quo and prioritized democratic integrity.

During the election in Thailand, other parties also presented similar policies, but the winning party challenged the status quo and prioritized democratic integrity. The election process in Thailand is generally smooth, with free and fair voting. However, discrepancies arise once the results are announced as the Electoral Commission and Constitutional Court appointed by the military junta take time to investigate candidates after the election instead of before. The election results were shocking as the electorate did not support the military parties. Move Forward became the largest party with 151 MPs, followed by Pheu Thai with 141 MPs, and the military parties of PPRP and UTN came in fourth and fifth with a total of 76 MPs. Move Forward won 32 out of 33 seats in Bangkok. Although Move Forward is the largest party, they still need 375 votes from MPs and Senate members to form a government. Negotiations are taking place, and the current coalition has 313 MPs. Parties outside the current coalition are undecided if they will support Pita as rumours circulate that his party will remove Section 112 from the penal code, known as the lèse-majesté laws. The outcome of who will take over the government is not expected until July or possibly August, leaving the caretaker, PM Prayut, in charge. This allows the establishment to prevent Move Forward from forming a government or nullifying its path.

The ongoing coalition negotiations are a critical moment for the Move Forward Party. Although they do not hold most seats, unlike previous parties, they now rely on a coalition. This election will also test Prayut Chan-o-Cha’s words, as he previously stated he would fade away if he lost but now suggests he may stay involved in politics despite not being an MP. The military establishment is known for not fading into the background. If they attempt to interfere, it could result in disappointment for the electorate that overwhelmingly rejected the status quo. If Pita from Move Forward successfully obtains a high office, there is hope that their first term will focus on restoring democratic values and integrity in politics, often used for personal gain rather than what is best for the country. During the campaign, the youth vote strongly backed MFP, and even the older generations began to take notice of their message; however, it remains to be seen if their promises will be acted upon.

Jamie Greenfield, Alumni of the University of Westminster

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