Five top takeaways from Thailand’s election

May 16, 2023 - 7:03 PM
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Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat waves to supporters as they celebrate the party's election results in Bangkok, Thailand, May 15, 2023. (Reuters/Jorge Silva and Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha)

 Thailand’s top two opposition parties scored a resounding victory over military-allied parties in Sunday’s election and on Monday began seeking coalition partners to overcome the votes of an appointed Senate to pick a prime minister.

Here are key takeaways from the election.

Progressive party’s win marks societal shift

The big surprise of the election was the first-place win of the progressive Move Forward party.

It campaigned on a platform of institutional change including limiting the army’s role in politics, scrapping military conscription and – most controversially – amending a law that penalises insulting Thailand’s king with up to 15 years in prison.

A few years ago, even discussing the role of the monarchy in Thailand was considered taboo, so more than 10 million votes for a party discussing the issue marks a huge societal shift.

Government formation will still be tricky 

Even though Move Forward and its most likely ally Pheu Thai Party won a projected 292 seats in the 500-seat elected House of Representatives, that’s still not enough to ensure they can vote for their choice of prime minister and form a government.

That’s because a 250-seat Senate appointed by a former junta also gets a vote for any prime minister, and it could block the self-described democratic front.

The parties on Monday called on the Senate to respect the will of the people and back their effort to form a government.

Markets tumble on stability concerns

The main stock market was down 1.3% on Monday on concerns over political uncertainty.

Some energy shares, such as heavyweight Gulf Energy, took a hit on expectations a new government would curb energy prices and dismantle monopolies. The baht also pared earlier gains.

Analysts said investors were likely to stay on the sidelines as they wait for the formation of the next government and clarity on its policies.

Vote ended winning streak of populist juggernaut 

Although Pheu Thai came in a strong second, this election ended a long streak of wins for the populist juggernaut founded by self-exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra.

Since he first swept into office in 2001, parties loyal to Thaksin have won the most seats in every election – until now. Thaksin was ousted by the military in a 2006 coup. Last week, he vowed to return in July to Thailand, where he faces prison for corruption convictions that he says are politically motivated.

Stance on royal insult laws complicates coalition talks 

Move Forward’s position that it wants to amend – though not abolish – the law punishing royal insult is likely to make it difficult to find enough coalition partners to form a government.

While the party leader Pita Limjaroenrat stresses he only wants to change the law to prevent it from being misused for political purposes, the party’s inclusion of some candidates facing trial for insulting the king could make it too controversial for other parties to join any government it leads.

—Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor and Christina Fincher