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Thailand elections: Voters deliver stunning blow to army-backed rule 2023

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Thailand elections: Voters deliver stunning blow to army-backed rule 2023

In an election that has been called a political earthquake, Thai voters have delivered a stunning verdict in favour of an opposition party that has demanded significant reforms of the country’s institutions. Early results reveal that Move Forward, the opposition party, has won 151 of the 500 seats in the lower house, exceeding every prediction. The party is now ten seats ahead of the previous frontrunner, Pheu Thai, which is led by the daughter of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Analysts believe this is a significant shift in public opinion and a clear repudiation of the two military-aligned parties of the current government and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a coup in 2014 that ousted an elected government. The governing coalition only won 15% of the seats. Move Forward’s 42-year-old leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, stated that they left no stone unturned, adding that people have had enough in the last decade, and now, it’s a new day. Pheu Thai, the second-largest party, has agreed to join Move Forward and four smaller opposition parties, giving them a coalition of over 60% of seats in the new parliament.

However, it is still not enough to outvote the 250-strong unelected senate, which was appointed by Prayuth and is allowed to join the vote in parliament for the next administration. They are likely to object to Move Forward’s progressive agenda, particularly its pledge to amend the controversial lese majeste law. In the upcoming political negotiations, many Thais fear the military and its supporters may attempt to block the winning parties from taking office. Although a military coup is unlikely, another court ruling to disqualify Move Forward on a technicality, as happened to its predecessor Future Forward in 2020, is possible.

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The question remains of how well Move Forward and Pheu Thai can work together. Their relationship in the previous parliament was sometimes fractious. Pita, a Harvard University graduate and a skilled parliamentarian, is still untested in the more ruthless art of stitching together and sustaining a coalition. However, this uncertainty does not change the fact that the people of Thailand woke up to a changed political landscape.

The majority of votes reflect the need to escape from the ‘Prayuth regime’ and the yearning for change, says Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist from Thammasat University. It shows that people believe in the Move Forward demand for change, many more people than predicted. Thai social media has been awash with victory messages from Move Forward supporters, who call themselves organic canvassers and describe the party’s win as a wind of change and the dawn of a new era.

Move Forward, a party that has called for wholesale changes to Thailand’s bureaucracy, economy, military, and the laws protecting the monarchy, has won more seats and votes than any of its rivals. This would have been unthinkable in the past. The party’s candidates had fewer resources than their rivals and had to rely on social media and sometimes old technology like bicycles to get their message across. The party ruled out any coalition with parties associated with the 2014 military coup, a position on which its reformist rival Pheu Thai was initially evasive. The party is known for taking principled positions and is fresh and bold. It benefitted from what appears to be a widespread public appetite for change. Although voters under 26 years old are not a large bloc in ageing Thailand, they make up just 14% of the 52-million electorate. They worked hard to persuade older voters to back Move Forward to offer their generation a better future.

In the weeks leading up to the election, a new wave of memes exploded on Thai social

media, with people taking giant steps or leaps as a symbolic gesture in support of Move Forward, referencing the party’s Thai name. This enthusiasm translated into real-life voting booths, where individuals took exaggerated strides to express their backing. Since election rules prohibit voters from openly declaring their preferences, this was the only way to indicate their leanings. Some supporters also donned bright orange shirts, flip flops, and sneakers, embracing the party’s chosen campaign color.

Despite having fewer resources than their opponents, Move Forward’s candidates relied on social media and unconventional methods, such as bicycles, to effectively convey their message. Their vision appeared clearer and more cohesive than that of other parties, resonating with the public. Furthermore, Move Forward firmly rejected any coalition with parties associated with the 2014 military coup, a stance initially evaded by their reformist rival, Pheu Thai. Throughout the previous parliament, Move Forward gained recognition for taking principled stands on various issues.

The party’s success can be attributed to a widespread desire for change among the Thai populace. While voters under 26 years old constitute a relatively small percentage of the aging electorate, comprising only 14% of the total, they actively campaigned to convince older voters to support Move Forward, aiming to secure a better future for their generation.

However, despite the mandate for change, the immediate question remains whether the two reformist parties will be allowed to form a government. Mr. Pita, expressing optimism during a media address, believes that given the consensus emerging from the election, it would be highly unlikely for anyone to disregard the election results or establish a minority government. The people of Thailand, he asserts, will not allow such an outcome to occur.

The results of this election mark a monumental shift in Thai politics, as Move Forward, a party advocating comprehensive reforms to the country’s bureaucracy, economy, military, and even the monarchy’s protective laws, has emerged victorious, surpassing its rivals in terms of seats and votes. This achievement mirrors the issues that fueled the student-led protest movement in 2020, where some of Move Forward’s candidates played prominent roles. Young and passionate voters, many of whom align with the party’s values, significantly influenced the election outcome.

As the sun rose on a new day, Thailand woke up to a transformed political landscape. The victory of Move Forward signifies a turning point, reflecting the changing mindset of both the establishment and pro-democracy factions. The once-unthinkable scenario of a party advocating sweeping changes holding more seats and garnering more support than its counterparts has become a reality. Thai society finds itself at the crossroads of progress, and only time will reveal the path the nation chooses to tread.

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