Pita Limjaroenrat, Move Forward Party's leader and prime ministerial candidate, poses for a picture during an upcoming election campaign event in Bangkok, Thailand, April 22, 2023. Photo: Facebook Move Forward / Screengrab

BANGKOK – Thai voters overwhelmingly selected the Move Forward and Peua Thai opposition parties at Sunday’s (May 14) highly anticipated election, a popular call for change over continuity that may or may not result in a smooth political transition after nearly a decade of military-aligned rule.

Move Forward, the reincarnation of the banned Future Forward and bete noire of the kingdom’s powerful conservative establishment, exceeded all expectations by capturing scores of upcountry constituency seats and apparently all 33 seats in Bangkok. Its dominant showing on the party list vote, with 38 of 100 possible seats, significantly outpaced even Peua Thai (27).

As of early Monday morning with 98.82% of the vote counted, Move Forward led Peua Thai 113-111 in the race for 400 constituency seats and 151-141 in the overall vote including 100 party list seats. The Bhumjaithai party placed top among the ruling coalition with 70 total seats.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s new United Thai Nation placed a distant fifth with 36; the ruling military-aligned Palang Pracharat party (PPRP) that Prayut split with ahead of the vote ran fourth with 39. (The Election Commission declared Move Forward the election’s winner on Monday afternoon.)

The two military-aligned parties strategic schism aimed at winning rough-and-tumble Central Plains constituencies and the elite conservative vote in Bangkok and “yellow” vote in the South backfired badly. PPRP won the popular vote at 2019 elections, marking a tidal reversal in popular sentiment from favoring stability to yearning for change four years on.

Peua Thai candidate Paetongtarn on the campaign trail. Image: Peua Thai Party / Facebook

Peua Thai, the party of former, self-exiled prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra now fronted by the former’s political novice daughter Paetongtarn, had predicted a “landslide” victory of 310 of a total possible 500 seats.

It fell well short of that ambitious call at 141, marking a continuous slide in the once-dominant populist party’s popularity. Peua Thai’s next move is uncertain, particularly amid talk of a “deal” to bring Thaksin home from exile without serving prison time for his criminal convictions.

Move Forward party leader Pita Limjaroenrat told reporters the vote indicated Thais’ desire for “change” and later on the party’s Facebook page said it “will push forward progressive policies and build the Thailand that we dream of together, as quickly as possible.” The upstart party’s popularity reached well beyond the demographically-limited youth vote it was only anticipated to win.

Pita, a Harvard graduate with known family ties to Thaksin, extended an initial hand to Peua Thai to form a coalition that with other small opposition parties would put it over the psychological 300-seat threshold, on the condition they sign a memorandum of understanding. Peua Thai had not yet conceded the result to Move Forward as of early Monday morning.

Prime Minister Prayut indicated he would remain in politics and “not be unorthodox on the matter” in a comment initially interpreted to mean he would not strive to form a minority government with losing coalition parties. That volatile possibility lingers with the role of the military-appointed, 250-member Senate, which has a vote with the 500-seat lower house on the next prime minister.

As Move Forward and Peua Thai grapple over who won the vote, the bigger question is whether the conservative establishment will allow the result to stand. Accusations of vote-buying, including in Bangkok, are already being leveled apparently against Move Forward and likely other parties, charges the Election Commission will take months to adjudicate before announcing final results, after which the prime minister vote will be held in Parliament.

More ominiously, perhaps, Move Forward faced certain accusations on the campaign trail of improperly referring to the monarchy, including in comments and gestures made as part of the party’s drive to amend and possibly abolish the Article 112 lese majeste law that shields the monarchy from criticism with possible 15-year prison penalties.

The fact that Prayut’s conservative-leaning government oversaw the dissolution of Move Forward’s forerunner Future Forward on party financing laws many observers saw as spurious charges to eliminate a potential threat to the crown will continue to hang over the post-election landscape until the final results are announced, likely in July.

Street protests against Future Forward’s court-ordered dissolution later grew and morphed into wider student-led protests agitating for Prayut’s ouster while making unprecedented critical calls for wide-reaching royal reforms.

The nominally independent Election Commission famously signed off on a post-election interpretation of the party list law for small parties after the 2019 polls that favored Prayut and the military-aligned Palang Pracharat party that allowed them to fudge the numbers enough to form a ruling coalition.

Sunday’s overwhelming result will be much more difficult to manipulate without an outright dissolution of Move Forward, a move that would explode Thailand’s credibility as a democracy and almost inevitably lead to vigorous pro-democracy street protests that depending on their intensity, scale and target could create the environment for a military intervention.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (C) addresses supporters of the Ruam Thai Sang Chart (United Thai Nation) Party, on January 9, 2023. Photo: Twitter

Significantly, Prayut’s UTN party created and disseminated online a video in response to Move Forward’s late surge in opinion polls that portrayed the progressive party as an agent of chaos, disruption and even immorality, a clip that served as a backdrop at the party’s late campaign rallies in a bid to portray UTN as the party of stability and protector of the crown.

Some analysts note that Move Forward’s social media-fueled late surge in opinion polls that appeared to contribute to building the krasae, or wave, that built far and wide across the kingdom coincided with King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s departure from Thailand to attend Charles III’s coronation in the United Kingdom. The poll’s initially planned May 7 date was pushed back a week to make way for the king’s overseas trip, diplomatic sources say.

Move Forward’s royal challenge comes at an especially delicate juncture for the institution with the prolonged hospitalization of Princess Bajrakitiyabha, 44, a Cornell-trained lawyer affectionately known as Princess Pa who collapsed on December 14 last year due to an apparent heart condition while training dogs at an upcountry military facility.   

The princess is widely seen as central to managing King Vajiralongkorn’s plan to one day hand the crown to his son Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, who just turned 18 in April, a succession plan that has already come into sharp view in the king’s young reign and some say has been cast into certain doubt with the capable and influential princess’s potentially fatal illness.

Whether that royal delicacy plays a role in the political formation to come, perhaps in a so-called “unity government” that brings past political foes under one palace-endorsed umbrella, could make the difference between stability and instability in the months ahead.