Thai Opposition Parties Win Big – But There’s Still More To Go

In last week’s general election, the Move Forward and Pheu Thai parties – the main liberal opposition to the conservative and military-backed United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharath (UNTP) Party – won 152 and 141 seats respectively in Thailand’s House of Representatives. But while the opposition parties have won a majority of the House’s 500 seats, the prime minister must win the majority of the combined 750 seats in both the House and Senate to be elected. All 250 senators were appointed by the conservative military after the 2014 coup that put current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in place, and, in elections since then, have unanimously re-elected him on behalf of the UTNP. In the next 60 days, these senators will have to approve the election results and vote for prime minister.

The opposition’s resounding victory in the House speaks to Thailand’s frustration with the lackluster COVID response, infighting amongst the conservative parties, and general economic stagnation which have characterized Prayuth’s term, as well as his ties to the monarchy and military.

Pita Limjaroenrat is the current candidate for the Move Forward Party (M.F.P.), but the Election Commission (which is heavily influenced by Prayuth’s government) has already filed complaints against him. The situation is uncertain; the M.F.P.’s predecessor, the Future Forward party, was disqualified and disbanded over a similar minor complaint, contributing to 2020’s massive protests for democracy and free speech. If Pita is removed from candidacy and the M.F.P. follows its predecessor’s example, the nation is likely to face a resurgence of protests and disquietude.

Democracy’s Past in Thailand

Since the monarchy was officially overthrown and a civilian-elected government was installed in 1932, Thailand has seen 20 different constitutions and about half as many coups. Forms of government under these constitutions ranged from dictatorships to full democracy, with some embracing more freedoms than others. The current government is democratic in name, but its unfair election process for the prime minister’s office is a telling sign.

Much of Thailand, especially the nation’s youth, has criticized Prayuth’s government for its refusal to uphold democratic freedoms. Apart from the dissolvement of the Future Forward party after the 2019 election, the lese majeste laws punishing any criticism of the monarchy with 3-15 years of prison have drawn vocal outcry for their rejection of free speech. The police used these lese majesty laws to arrest participants in the massive nationwide protests of 2020 and 2021. The process was highly flawed – the court did not even review the defence’s evidence, and many prisoners were denied bail, all for the crime of peacefully protesting against a government that has blatantly denied election results in order to increase the king’s wealth and maintain the powerful’s grip on the country. The Guardian reports that human rights experts have called the constitutional court’s decision to keep protest leaders imprisoned a “judicial coup” and a violation of human rights.

These measures, which the Guardian reports that human rights experts have called a “judicial coup” and a violation of human rights, were effective at suppressing the protests, but they have also eroded Thai citizens’ trust in their state institutions. This recent election saw an overwhelming 75% of registered voters vote against the established government in favor of reform promised by opposition parties. Evidently people have not been stopped from using their voice. It is now in Prayuth and the rest of his government’s hands to decide whether they will honor the people’s choice and affirm democracy and freedom.

Opposition Responding to Conservative Democratic Failures

How the next two months unfold will be critical. The M.F.P. and Pheu Thai Party might be able to gather enough support from other, smaller parties to elect Pita via coalition. If the coalition can convince the third-place Bhumjaithai party to join, for example, that party’s 70 seats in parliament would lend enough support to get Pita across the necessary voting threshold. This is the best chance for progressing the country because, based on the conservative track record, another four years of UTNP rule would only further suppress freedoms and democracy.

However, according to Reuters, the Bhumjaithai party announced Wednesday that it would not support any coalition which “supports amending or abolishing a law against insulting the powerful monarchy.” Probably in response, the coalition declared that potential partners do not need to support changing lese majesty laws to join, but caving to this condition goes back on one of the M.F.P.’s key campaign points. The party’s promise to change the lese majesty laws was a major draw to all the youth voters who protested that exact law a few years ago. Undermining progressive faith in the M.F.P.’s ability to create change would not bode well for the future of the party if they do take control.

That being said, compromising with Bhumjaithai, though very much less than ideal, is the best decision possible at this time: the alternative is to likely lose to the conservative military establishment. Voters should understand that this would be a worst-case scenario. When asked about what would happen if the current government stays in power, Titipol Phakdeewanich, professor of political science at the Ubon Ratchathani University in Thailand told Al-Jazeera that “I think the people of Thailand would not allow that to happen.” Progressive parties secured a clear margin in the election when they won at least 25 million out of the 39 million votes cast. The people clearly do not want a UNTP government; if shady tactics result in another conservative term as Prime Minister, it would trigger another massive round of protests.

In this event, Thailand’s citizens would, and should, come out to the streets to demonstrate and make their voices heard. But the military has already shown that it is not concerned with protestors’ safety. It is easy to imagine a larger, more intense round of protests being met with violence.

The best course forward, then, is to attract Bhumjaithai to the coalition, through whatever compromise is necessary to get Pita elected. Once Pita is prime minister, then progressive parties will be in a better place to create change over the next four years. With their position secured, the M.F.P. should call on citizens to pressure their P.M.s to vote in alignment with the progressive policies that citizens have shown they want in this election.

The progressive supporters have already shown their adeptness at using social media and the internet to rally behind the cause. The opposition’s ability to mobilize and communicate over the internet is a large reason why it was able to do so well in this election. They should further utilize this tool to pressure their representatives to vote for the policies that constituents want. In addition, the value of maintaining clear lines of communication from the M.F.P.’s leaders to their supporters should not be overlooked. Hopefully being open about why they have chosen to compromise with Bhumjaithai will sustain morale and preserve voters’ hope for the future should leaders decide to go this route.

Additionally, as global citizens, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to support democratic efforts for freedom wherever they occur. This can take many forms, such as commenting on government officials’ social media posts or contacting them through whatever contact information is out there. Individuals and governments around the world should pressure Thailand’s government to do the right thing and listen to the constituents it swore to serve.

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