BANGKOK: Thailand’s progressive Move Forward Party claimed victory in the country’s election on Monday after a stunning result that decimated military-backed parties, which have ruled the kingdom for nearly a decade.
A massive surge for Move Forward (MFP) in Sunday’s ballot left it on course to be the biggest party, followed by its rival opposition — the Pheu Thai movement of billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thai voters turned out in record numbers to deliver a brutal verdict on former coup leader Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who has been blamed for economic stagnation and a crackdown on rights.
MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat said he would seek to build a six-party coalition including Pheu Thai, which said it was ready to join, though negotiations of the details have not yet begun.
“I am Pita Limjaroenrat, the next prime minister of Thailand,” he told reporters at the MFP headquarters in Bangkok. “The sentiment of the air has changed, it was right. It was the right timing, people have been through enough,” he said in English.
“Today is a new day, and hopefully it is full of sunshine and hope.” Between them, MFP and Pheu Thai are expected to take 292 out of 500 seats in the lower house, with the two main army-allied parties mustering just 76 seats in total.
A new force in Thai politics, MFP channelled the energy of youth-led pro-democracy protests in 2020 in an election campaign pitting a young generation yearning for change against a conservative old guard of septuagenarian generals and backroom billionaires.
Napisa Waitoolkiat, a political analyst at Naresuan University, said the MFP’s success was built on a depth of research and level of policy detail unheard of in Thai politics. “Never before to my knowledge has the opposition party done this kind of level of preparation,” she said.
“I think this is really a unique policy message to the public, and the public love it.” The result is potentially a seismic change, with Napisa comparing it to the United States electing former president Barack Obama in 2008.
“I think this election is a slap on the face of the older generation, the old mind-set, the old belief, and the old politics,” student protest leader Panussaya Sitthijirawattanakul said.
“The status quo has been demolished and shown that the people are ready to ‘move forward’,” said the activist, better known in Thailand by her nickname Rung.
The 24-year-old is representative of a generation still doggedly speaking truth to power, despite facing a battery of royal defamation charges that could see her jailed for years.
And she said that if the establishment conspired to block an MFP government — by either parliamentary plotting or court orders — the protesters would not hesitate to turn out. “We are ready to hit the street again,” she said.
Taking on elites
In an interview in April, Pita laid out his “three Ds “: de-militarisation, de-centralisation and de-monopolisation. MFP has promised to halt military conscription, replacing it with voluntary enlistment, and recognised the need for more autonomy for rural regions like Chiang Mai, which have long felt abandoned by Bangkok.
The party has also pledged to tackle Thailand’s monopolies, which see a handful of mega-wealthy families control much of the kingdom’s economy.
Taking on the establishment seems like a gamble but Pita was confident even in April, clear that Thailand was ready for something new.
“The sentiment of the era has changed so much for every institution in this country,” he said.
“I am sure they will vote for the future, and not the good old days.”
Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2023