Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat appears at a rally in Bangkok

Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat appears at a rally in Bangkok on May 12, 2023.

(Photo: Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

'A Political Earthquake': Thai Voters Back Opposition in Decisive Rebuke of Military Rule

"This is people saying that we want change," said one observer. "They want change, and they could achieve it."

Thai voters turned out in record numbers on Sunday to reject a decade of military rule and deliver what was seen as a stunning upset for Move Forward, a youth-backed pro-democracy party that is poised to win the most seats in Thailand's House of Representatives.

Pita Limjaroenrat, Move Forward's leader, said Sunday that he is prepared to succeed 2014 coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as Thailand's prime minister, and the progressive party has agreed to hold coalition talks with Pheu Thai, the other major opposition party.

As for Thailand's military-aligned parties, they were "handed a sweeping defeat," reported the Financial Times, "with the United Thai Nation party, a vehicle for incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, receiving only 36 constituency seats."

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, toldThe Washington Post that the election results were "breathtaking," adding that Move Forward "has taken this election by storm" after the party made a surprise surge past Pheu Thai, propelled by massive support from young voters.

"A political earthquake," Thitinan added.

But the opposition's bid to lead Thailand and challenge the country's dominant institutions—the army and the monarchy—will be complicated by the junta-authored constitution, which allows the military to appoint the entire 250-member Senate. (Thailand's military has received consistent support from the U.S. even as it has engaged in what one rights group called "unending repression.")

The military-controlled Senate and the 500-member House are tasked with choosing a prime minister. Move Forward and Pheu Thai are expected to win a combined 292 seats in the House, leaving Pita shy of the 376 votes needed to become prime minister.

During a press conference on Monday, Pita said Thailand's other opposition parties have agreed to help form a majority coalition government.

"To go against the will of the people will not benefit anyone," said Pita.

The final results of Sunday's high-stakes election are set to be released in the coming weeks, and there is concern among opposition parties that ruling elites could tamper with the outcome—a move that would likely spark mass protests. In 2020, large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations were met with a harsh crackdown by Thai authorities.

The Associated Pressreported Monday that "Move Forward's Pita is a possible target for what the opposition, from bitter experience, calls dirty tricks."

A candidate with Palang Pracharath, a right-wing pro-military party, "filed a complaint with the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission claiming Pita failed to list a stock shareholding on a statutory assets declaration," AP noted.

"Pita denied any wrongdoing in the minor, technical claim," the outlet continued. "However, the leader of the Future Forward Party, forerunner of Move Forward, lost his Parliament seat on similar technical grounds. His party, also considered a radical challenge to the military-backed royalist establishment, was dissolved."

The Guardian's Rebecca Ratcliffe noted ahead of Sunday's contest that Pita "has promised to push military generals back to the barracks—a pledge that resonates with young people who have already lived through two military coups, in 2006 and 2014."

"He has also promised to break up powerful monopolies that dominate the Thai economy, and reform the lèse-majesté law, under which criticism of the monarchy can be punished with up to 15 years in prison," Ratcliffe wrote. "Move Forward is the only party to make a clear commitment to reform the law; conservative parties all fiercely oppose doing so."

Move Forward also campaigned on a $13 daily minimum wage—up from roughly $10—and legalizing same-sex marriage.

"This is people saying that we want change," Saowanee T. Alexander, a professor at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand, said following Sunday's election. "They are saying that they could no longer take it. The people are very frustrated. They want change, and they could achieve it."

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