Thai Establishment Thwarts Popular Will with Post-election Moves
Thai Establishment Thwarts Popular Will with Post-election Moves
A pro-democracy protester holds a sign reading Dictatorship of Thailand during a demonstration in support of the Move Forward Party. HANS LUCAS/Valeria Mongelli
Q&A / Asia 12 minutes

Thai Establishment Thwarts Popular Will with Post-election Moves

Despite winning big at the polls on 14 May, Thailand’s Move Forward has been blocked from forming a government. In taking this step, as Crisis Group expert Matt Wheeler explains in this Q&A, the party’s conservative opponents are nudging the country toward turmoil.

What is happening in Thai politics, and why is it important?

Thailand’s 14 May general election resulted in a stunning triumph for the progressive Move Forward Party and a resounding rejection of political forces associated with the military-backed establishment that has governed since the May 2014 coup d’état. Campaigning on a platform that directly challenged the military’s prerogatives, as well as those of the bureaucracy, oligarchy and monarchy, the establishment’s other pillars, Move Forward won 14 million votes and 151 seats, ten more than the runner-up Pheu Thai Party, which had been the largest opposition force in parliament. But events since the election underscore a fundamental problem that animated Move Forward’s reformist agenda: unelected elites – namely, the military and its conservative allies – retain the power to determine political outcomes without regard for the popular will.  

Move Forward’s platform of some 300 proposals shakes the foundations of the status quo. Its ideas include subordinating the military to civilian leadership, ending conscription, breaking up monopolies, decentralising political power, instituting elected governorships, overhauling the education system, drafting a new constitution and amending the lèse-majesté law, which makes it a crime to speak ill of the king. Move Forward attracted votes as the only major party discussing far-reaching remedies to structural problems that have slowed economic growth, entrenched inequality and left Thailand mired in the tier of middle-income countries that fail to make the transition to high-income status.

Yet in spite of assembling an eight-party coalition, including the Pheu Thai Party, representing more than 70 per cent of the popular vote measured by the party-list polling (Thai voters cast two ballots, one each for a constituency candidate and a party), Move Forward has been unable to form a government. The fundamental obstacle is the 2017 constitution, drafted by appointees of the junta in charge from 2014 to 2019 and ratified in an unfair national referendum. Section 272 provides for the junta-appointed, 250-member Senate to take part in choosing the prime minister along with the elected 500-member House.  

These handpicked senators, many of whom are ex-military officers, have closed ranks to block Move Forward’s sole candidate for premier, party leader Pita Limjareonrat. Pita lost the first poll in a joint sitting of the two chambers on 13 July, after an overwhelming majority of senators abstained. Parliamentarians did not vote on a prime minister in the second round on 19 July. Instead, they voted that Pita could not be renominated because of a regulation that prohibits resubmission of a failed motion in the same session barring a change in circumstances.

Even conservative experts criticised the manoeuvre as unconstitutional. On 25 July, the Constitutional Court accepted a petition to rule on the constitutionality of the second vote, leading the House speaker to postpone indefinitely a further vote that had been scheduled for 27 July. The court will decide on 3 August if it will take up the case. But even if Pita is permitted to stand a second time, his path to election is vanishingly narrow given the obstructions posed by the Senate.

Supporters of the Move Forward Party, holding signs that read “Abolish the senate”, gather to protest the day after the party’s leader Pita Limjaroenrat failed to be confirmed as prime minister during the 13 July parliamentary vote. CRISIS GROUP / Margarite Clarey

The impasse is in many ways an effect of the 2014 coup, when the army seized power after months of protests against the Pheu Thai government under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. That event continues to mould Thai politics, not least through the framework of the 2017 constitution. The constitution codifies the powers of appointed senators, powerful political regulatory agencies and a conservative judiciary, which together are able to curb the power of elected representatives. The 14 May parliamentary election was the second under this charter; in the earlier poll, in 2019, the first-place party, Pheu Thai, did not succeed in forming a government and instead went into opposition.

By thwarting the results at the ballot box, the move to block Pita has set the stage for turmoil. Many Move Forward supporters are already angry at what they see as their disenfranchisement. They are also distressed at the possibility the 2014 coup makers, who ruled for five years as a junta and then, following the 2019 election, as the core of a coalition government, could return to power even though voters just snubbed their parties at the polls. A popular social media hashtag reads, “Why have an election?”, encapsulating the widespread frustration at seeing winning parties denied political power or, worse, dissolved while their executives are banned from holding office for years. The Constitutional Court has disbanded five political parties since 2007, including predecessors of Pheu Thai (Thai Rak Thai in 2007 and Palang Prachachon in 2008) and Move Forward (Future Forward, in 2020). Move Forward supporters have so far focused their ire at the senators who denied Pita the premier’s seat, including by trolling them online, as well as at the Election Commission and Constitutional Court, whose members are also appointed by unelected officials. There has already been a series of small but spirited protests in Bangkok and elsewhere since the first prime ministerial vote, and more are planned.

Pro-democracy protesters hold signs of “Senators = Wasting the People’s Time” and “Respect My Vote!” on 23 July 2023 demonstrations at the Asoke Intersection in Bangkok, Thailand. CRISIS GROUP / Matthew Wheeler

What are possible future scenarios?

The course of events in national politics remains fluid, and the permutations and possible outcomes are many. Nevertheless, it appears increasingly likely that, despite winning the election, Move Forward will end up in opposition.

After Pita lost the vote for prime minister, the party agreed to participate in a government headed by the Pheu Thai Party, the second largest force in the eight-party coalition Move Forward formed immediately after the election. But as days pass without progress toward another prime ministerial vote, this coalition is coming under increasing strain. At issue is whether the Pheu Thai Party, aligned with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, will stick by its post-election pledge to work with Move Forward or instead seek to form a government with conservative parties that formed the core of the outgoing coalition: Palang Pracharat, United Thai Nation, Bhumjaithai and Chartthaipattana. All of these parties have vowed not to join any coalition that includes Move Forward, citing its promise to seek amendment of the harsh lèse-majesté law (Article 112 of the Criminal Code), which they portray as disrespectful if not treasonous. Though such pledges may yet crumble as parties feel pressure to gain access to the spoils of office, there is little evidence that negotiations are heading in that direction. 

Pheu Thai, once reviled by conservatives as the embodiment of venal majoritarian rule, may now be their best hope of those seeking to keep Move Forward out of office. Thaksin’s well-publicised desire to return to Thailand after fifteen years abroad (presumably without being required to serve time for past abuse-of-power convictions) may provide the incentive for Pheu Thai to opt for a deal with establishment political forces. On 26 July, Paethongtan Shinawatra, Thaksin’s daughter and one of three Pheu Thai prime ministerial candidates, announced that her father will come back to the country on 10 August. There are unconfirmed reports that Pheu Thai has struck a deal with Palang Pracharat and Bhumjaitai to form a government, leaving Move Forward to remain in opposition. If true, Pheu Thai is likely to face backlash from some of its own voters.

[A minority government] is far less likely than a Pheu Thai-led coalition.

Another – extremely remote – possibility is a minority government, formed by the conservative Palang Pracharat Party under caretaker Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan with support from the Senate and assorted conservative parties. This alternative is far less likely than a Pheu Thai-led coalition given that the Bhumjaithai and Democrat parties, both of them part of the outgoing coalition, continue to insist they will not join a weak minority government. Moreover, should such a coalition gain power, it could well spark public fury and lead to a weak and unstable government. Nevertheless, rumours abound of behind-the-scenes efforts by conservative parties to poach MPs from Pheu Thai and Move Forward.

Adding to the uncertainty are legal cases against both Pita and Move Forward. The day before the first prime ministerial vote in parliament, the Election Commission asked the Constitutional Court to determine if Pita broke election laws by registering as a candidate when he knew he was ineligible. At issue are shares in a defunct television station, ITV, inherited from his father and held in trust. The shares in question amount to a stake of less than 1 per cent in ITV, which has not broadcast since 2007, but under Thai law, members of Parliament may not own a piece of a media company. (Four years ago, the same charge resulted in the disqualification of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, founder of the Future Forward Party, progenitor of Move Forward, resulting in his being banned from holding elected office for ten years.)

On 19 July, the day of the aborted second vote, the Constitutional Court acted on the Electoral Commission’s recommendation to suspend Pita from his MP duties. If found guilty, the 42-year-old leader, who had to abandon his seat in Parliament for the duration of the investigation, could be disqualified as a legislator. Technically, he could still become prime minister, as the 2017 constitution does not require the head of government to be elected, but it is improbable.

Even more worrying for Move Forward is a complaint accepted by the Constitutional Court on 12 July that the party’s proposal to amend the lèse-majesté law (Article 112 of the Criminal Code) amounts to an attempt to overthrow “the democratic form of government with the King as head of state”, thereby violating the constitution. While the court can at most order that Move Forward cease activities it deems to be aimed at toppling the government, such a verdict would, under Section 92 of the 2017 Organic Act on Political Parties, compel the Election Commission to file a separate case that could result in the party’s dissolution and a decade-long ban on its executives holding office.

Move Forward’s opponents have focused their attacks on the party’s proposal to amend Article 112, which prescribes three to fifteen years in prison for anyone defaming, insulting or threatening “the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”. Little used early in King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s reign, which began in 2016, charges under Article 112 have escalated after the pro-democracy protests that shook Thailand in 2020-2021. Between November 2020 and mid-July 2023, at least 253 people have been charged under Article 112, in 273 cases. In 2021, a woman was sentenced to 43 years in prison on 29 separate charges for sharing social media posts, reduced from 86 years because she pled guilty.

The law’s critics say royalists use it to stifle debate about the monarchy’s role in the country’s politics and economy. Move Forward has proposed amending the law to soften the penalties and stipulate that only the palace be permitted to bring charges; at present, any Thai citizen can lodge a lèse-majesté complaint. The issue is so sensitive that the eight-party coalition formed around Move Forward in the aftermath of the election omitted amendment of Article 112 from their Memorandum of Understanding. While conservative senators blasted Pita and Move Forward on the issue during the debate before the first prime ministerial vote, many of the party’ supporters say it is royalists who are politicising the monarchy. Royalist politicians’ attacks on lèse-majesté reform appeared opportunistic to many observers, given that such legislation stands no chance of passing parliament, even if Pita accedes to the post of prime minister.

What could happen if Move Forward is dissolved?

Move Forward’s dissolution would not mean the end of the pro-democracy movement it has come to represent. Future Forward’s 2020 dissolution for receiving illegal loans from its party leader was the impetus for pro-democracy protests that mobilised tens of thousands of Thais, particularly young people, to demand a new constitution, a fresh election and reform of the monarchy. Future Forward won six million votes in 2019. Move Forward more than doubled that total, reflecting not only its political acumen but also changing social mores and civic attitudes that increasingly align with the party’s reformist demands.


Secondary school students have been instrumental in advocating for social, educational and political reforms. Clad in orange ribbons and hats, the colour of the Move Forward Party, protestors mobilise to oppose the 13 July parliamentary vote. CRISIS GROUP / Margarite Clarey

The election result and the establishment’s response indicate a deepening of the longstanding conflict over the source of political legitimacy – popular sovereignty or unelected traditional authority – that has roiled Thai politics since 2005. If Move Forward were to be dissolved, it would demonstrate once again that the deck is stacked against advocates of reform. Mass protests would be likely, building on the experience and networks developed during the demonstrations of 2020-2021. Having contained those protests with minimal violence and no loss of life, the authorities may feel confident that they can ride out a new wave of rallies. But the dynamics have changed. Move Forward won all but one of Bangkok’s 33 districts (and lost that one by only four votes), so the capital is decidedly home turf for the party’s supporters. Should the army be deployed to quash demonstrations, many Thais would be reminded of Black May 1992, when the army was discredited after shooting down young, urban pro-democracy protesters.

Move Forward’s electoral success makes protests more likely by affording its supporters reason for believing they have the moral high ground. Move Forward also performed well in provincial capitals, so if demonstrations intensify, they are likely to take place nationwide. Many of Move Forward’s voters are affluent; their readiness to boycott businesses aligned with the conservative establishment could add a potent new dimension to expressions of discontent.

How likely is violence, and what can be done to prevent it?

Although tensions may worsen and street protests escalate, there are factors militating against an all-out confrontation between political camps in the near term. While some observers worry about the prospect of another coup if Move Forward is included in the governing coalition – Thailand holds the world record, with at least twelve successful putsches since 1932 – that seems unlikely right now. The 2017 constitution already enshrines an array of mechanisms that, for the moment, seem like they will keep Move Forward out of office. To be sure, the means of coercion remain with the establishment, and the military has in the past shown little compunction about crushing and even killing those deemed a threat to the status quo: security forces used deadly violence against pro-democracy protests in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. Though the establishment could decide to dispense with its efforts to maintain a façade of electoral legitimacy, it is more likely to persist with using legal and constitutional means of constraining its opponents. This approach may work for a time, but it also risks intensifying the disappointment of a growing number of Thai people who harbour rising expectations of structural political and economic reform.

A banner reads "Respect My Vote”, “Senators out!”, “112 can be discussed in parliament”, and “Please see us!” in protest to the vote that blocked the confirmation of Pita Limjaroenrat as prime minister despite winning the most seats in the May election. CRISIS GROUP / Margarite Clarey

For its part, although its supporters are in no mood for compromise, Move Forward may shy away from overt support for disruptive protests, with the idea of positioning itself to contest a general election after May 2024, when the Senate’s term expires. According to the constitution, a new cohort of 200 senators will be selected in an arcane committee process but will no longer have the right to participate in the election of the prime minister.

Yet confrontation in the near term cannot be ruled out. The expiry of the Senate’s prime minister selection role in 2024 could prompt a precipitous move from the establishment, including a coup, in order to re-establish their political advantages by revising the constitution or drafting a new one (the 2017 constitution is the country’s twentieth since 1932). Given that the army has already resorted to coups twice since 2006, such a step would likely trigger significant and perhaps unprecedented popular backlash, in turn leading to repressive measures that would further undermine the establishment’s claims to legitimacy.  

Taking a broader view, today’s political tensions are the latest manifestation of a contest that as noted dates back almost twenty years, if not to the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932; this contest pits popular sovereignty against a political order based on notions of a traditional hierarchy and deference to authority, underpinned by the monarchy. Thailand has no mechanism not already implicated in this struggle that could mediate dialogue regarding a new social contract. The May election and its aftermath illustrate that the 2017 constitution is a political tool designed by and for the incumbent elites, which leaves those demanding change without effective means of achieving their goals within the existing rules. By digging in their heels in the face of Move Forward’s electoral success, the establishment is nudging the country toward tumult.

Despite the establishment’s efforts to portray Move Forward as a fringe group of dangerous radicals, the election results are a clear indication that Thai society is changing and aspirations for a more pluralistic political order are growing. If electoral participation fails to effect change, people may be drawn to other means, if not at this juncture then down the road. On the other hand, the sooner conservative elites can begin to accommodate demands for change – ideally, by permitting the first-place political party to form a government and erasing the 2014 coup’s legacy by allowing a participatory constitution-drafting process – the better positioned they will be to forestall a potentially damaging confrontation.

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