Thailand’s pro-democracy opposition parties won a resounding general election victory as voters rebuked the military in a closely watched contest that could herald the country’s first transfer of power in a decade .
The progressive Move Forward party and the Pheu Thai party are together expected to win about 290 seats in Thailand’s 500-seat lower house, based on preliminary results from the election commission.
Pita Limjaroenrat, a Move Forward leader trained at Harvard and MIT, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that he was “ready” to be prime minister. “We believe the Thailand we love can be better. Change is possible.
He said he expected his party to start coalition talks with Pheu Thai, led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of billionaire telecoms tycoon and populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Its elected government was overthrown in a military coup in 2006.
But after a decade of coups, repressions and political turmoil, it is far from clear whether either opposition party will be able to lead the next government. Under parliamentary rules drafted by the military after a 2014 coup, an upper house full of pro-military appointees stands to block an opposition prime minister.
Thais vote for constituency MPs as well as a party, which is then allocated additional seats proportionally. Move Forward has 113 constituency seats, compared to Pheu Thai’s 111 so far. Final results may not be available for weeks.
Move Forward’s success in its second national poll reflects a backlash against Thailand’s deeply conservative royalist and military establishment as well as the party’s popularity among urban and young voters following anti-monarchy protests in 2020. Bangkok, the capital, he won 31 of 32 seats. .
Party supporters “grew up in a time of political polarization marked by protests, coups and repressions,” said Napon Jatusripitak, a researcher at the Singapore-based Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Pheu Thai, which had won every election since 2001, remains popular in the country’s rural northeast, where Thaksin’s anti-poverty policies are remembered.
The military-aligned parties suffered a crushing defeat, with the United Thai Nation party, a vehicle of incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, winning only around 9% of the vote for 23 constituency seats.
The ruling Palang Pracharath party, led by Prayuth’s deputy and longtime mentor Prawit Wongsuwan following a split in government, had 10% for 39 seats.
Prayuth, a former military leader who seized power in 2014 by toppling Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, had been exposed by human rights groups for suppressing civil liberties and crushing protests in 2020. On Sunday, he said he “respects democracy and election”.
The opposition’s show of force may not translate into government control. The military retains a significant advantage under Thailand’s 2017 constitution, which allows a junta-appointed 250-member senate to vote alongside the elected 500-seat lower house for a prime minister. This creates a threshold of at least 376 seats for the opposition to get its own prime minister and form a government.
A possible kingmaker is the regional party Bhumjaithai, which came third with 12.7% of the vote, enough for 68 constituency seats.
There is also the risk of either a military coup or judicial intervention to disqualify opposition candidates.
Move Forward’s Pita is already the subject of an election commission complaint over his ownership of shares in a broadcaster. The leader of an earlier incarnation of Move Forward was banned from politics for 10 years for a similar offence.
Move Forward’s proposals to reform the military and the monarchy, including ending conscription and changing harsh lese majesty law, can also prove to be an obstacle in coalition talks.
His agenda is seen by the establishment as “an existing threat”, according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
“It’s going to be very difficult to reform the old order without some sort of confrontation,” he said.