Only One Month to GO: The Thai Elections on 5 May

A superb introduction by Prof. Punchada Sirivunnabood

Thailand’s General Election: Can the Winner Really Take All?

The opposition Pheu Thai Party is well placed to win the May 14 polls. But will it be able to form government?

By Punchada Sirivunnabood for The Diplomat

April 20, 2023

Thailand’s General Election: Can the Winner Really Take All?
Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the leading prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Pheu Thai Party, speaks at a campaign rally on March 30, 2023.Credit: Facebook/Ing Shinawatra

On April 5, Thailand’s opposition Pheu Thai Party announced at a rally that the party would not join the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) in forming a coalition government after next month’s general election, despite rumors to the contrary. The party was aiming to reassure supporters and stated that its goal was to win at least 310 of the 500 seats in Parliament. Many polls report that Pheu Thai is the most popular choice to lead the government, with at least 35 percent support.

The question remains, however, whether the party can form a one-party government or even obtain the prime minister’s seat. Despite its likelihood of emerging with the largest share of parliamentary seats – the party and its predecessors have done so in every Thai election since 2001 – the party will face many challenges in forming the government, including the fact the 250 unelected senators will vote to elect the next prime minister, and are unlikely to support Pheu Thai’s chosen candidate, given the party’s association with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

According to the 2017 Constitution, prime ministerial candidates are not required to run for election. Political parties can nominate up to three candidates with the Election Commission of Thailand before election day. Only candidates whose party wins a minimum of 25 parliamentary seats are eligible for consideration. Until 2024, the selection of the prime minister is open to both the 500 MPs in the Lower House and the 250 members of the Senate Thus, to win the PM post, candidates likely must secure the support of 376 members of both houses of parliament. The Pheu Thai Party (PTP)’s “landslide strategy” of aiming to win at least 310 seats in the lower house would allow the party, with the support of other opposition parties, to claim a clear victory and appoint a PM despite having little support from the appointed Senate. Can the PTP, the party with the highest potential for electoral victory, achieve this landslide goal to form a one-party government and win the PM position? If not, what are the other possible electoral outcomes?

Winning 310 seats is not an easy task for the PTP. According to recent media interviews with senior members of the party, the PTP announced this strategy based on its victory in the 2001 and 2005 elections, in which the party won 248 seats and 377 seats, respectively. In those elections, though, the only main alternative party was the Democrat Party. There were no clear alternatives on either the liberal or conservative sides of the political spectrum.

In 2023, however, the electoral battlefield is crowded. The major conservative parties include the Democrats, the United Thai Nation Party, which supports Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as its prime ministerial candidate, Palang Pracharath, led by Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, and the Bhumjaithai Party, led by Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul. On the liberal side are PTP, the Move Forward Party, the Thai Sang Thai Party, led by former Pheu Thai prime ministerial candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan, and the Seri Ruam Thai Party, led by Seripisut Temiyavet.

The large number of options for voters will make it difficult for Pheu Thai to capture a landslide. Without a clear victory, it may be forced to form a coalition government with other parties from the liberal side, including Seri Ruam Thai and Move Forward. However, the PTP may need to consider this option carefully with regard to Move Forward’s policy on the reform of Article 112, Thailand’s lese-majeste law.

Aside from the above option, PTP may join political parties from the conservative group, including Palang Pracharath and Bhumjaithai. PPRP has headed the government under Prayut since 2019, and captured the prime ministerial post, despite being only the second-largest party in parliament, thanks to support from the 250 appointed senators. By joining PPRP, Pheu Thai could potentially gain support from the Senate. However, this might not result in a Pheu Thai prime minister, as the PPRP’s candidate, Prawit Wongsuwan, would prefer to become prime minister rather than take a backseat to the PTP.

Before the 2019 general election, Prawit had a hand in selecting the 250 appointed senators, which would likely give him a boost over any PTP candidate. While a PTP-PPRP coalition is possible, as mentioned above, senior members of Pheu Thai have declared their intention to establish a government without PPRP, calling on supporters to deliver a landslide victory. But the PPRP has additional advantages. Given his charisma and connections to many sectors, Prawit could help PTP form a stable government as well as create a path for Thaksin Shinawatra, one of the most influential and controversial figures in recent Thai political history, to return to the country.

During campaign debates, leaders of other conservative parties have stressed that if parties can form a coalition government with more than 250 seats, those parties should be allowed to rule the country, raising the prospect that the party that wins the largest number of seats may not form the government, as happened in 2019. If the PTP fails to form the collation government again after this election, there is a good chance that this will will allow the second largest party to form a government, perhaps in the same sort of patchwork conservative coalition that emerged after the last election. Last month, photos of Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of the Bhumjaithai party, having lunch with Prawit, were released in the media, signaling a possible cooperation between these two parties after the election.

In responding to PTP’s April 5 announcement that it would not join forces with the PPRP after the election, PPRP deputy party leader Paiboon Nithitawan insisted similarly at a press conference that his party would not form a government with Pheu Thai due to disagreements with several PTP policies. The statement may have been made to appeal to conservative voters who oppose pro-Thaksin and liberal parties. On the other hand, Paiboon’s message weakens PPRP’s claim to transcend past conflicts in Thai politics, emphasizing the party’s willingness to work with a broad array of parties after the election.

PPRP hopes that its motto will elevate it above the struggle between conservative and pro-democracy forces that have shaped Thai politics over the past two decades. The 2023 election will likely see a repeat of this struggle. Pheu Thai will likely gain the largest number of seats in parliament, as it and its predecessor parties have in every election since 2001. But whether that victory will translate into the capture of the prime minister’s seat is still in question.AUTHORS


Punchada Sirivunnabood

Punchada Sirivunnabood is an associate professor in the faculty of social sciences and humanities at Mahidol University, Thailand. Her expertise is Thai politics, political parties and elections, Indonesia’s politics, the criminal justice system in Thailand, and ASEAN security.

The Upcoming Election in Thailand

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (center) with supporters

While many Western democracies are losing their former prestige as a political model for Southeast Asia, there are interesting developments in the upcoming elections. In Europe, formerly stable political systems have crumbled. Party programs are difficult to distinguish, traditional ideological divides between conservatives, socialists, and liberals have nearly vanished, far right and far left fringe parties make it into the parliaments. The trust of the voters in political parties has eroded in such a way that parliamentary majorities are more difficult to form than ever before. More coalition governments struggle to survive, and hardly compatible parties in these shaky coalitions are facing the big challenge of accelerating economic and demographic changes. The USA, considered for many decades the leading model for the world and promoting democracy everywhere, is risking no less than its own governability in the unprecedented conflict between Republicans and Democrats. The once celebrated “Third Wave of Democratization” is so obviously history that finger pointing at democratic deficits in other countries is becoming futile and counterproductive. Politically motivated sanctions against military and authoritarian regimes don’t change attitudes but often enough endanger the poorer parts of their population. Exporting democracy as a humanitarian mission and attempts at regime change in countries far away look out of place, and the “missionaries” should better try to improve and rebalance their systems at home to regain credibility. Given this background, politicians, voters, and political scientists in Asia resent being constantly reminded of their democratic deficits and lack of human rights and minority protection. That might also apply to many among the 1.3 billion Chinese who see the progress of the country and the improved quality of life, without suffering too much from their lack of democratic freedoms under the tight control of the Communist Party. Because of the fast-increasing prosperity in many parts of Southeast Asia, people are more self-assured, and voters are looking for opportunities and improvement of their personal lives while remaining well aware of the power games among the political elites and their competition. But the popular demand for more transparency and democratic participation is persistently visible, not least inspired by the Myanmar resistance against the military regime.

The Thai elections on 14th May

Thailand has lived through a checkered history in terms of democratic development with more than a dozen military coups. Nevertheless, what seems to come up in the May election could be a fresh start without the coalition between the economic establishment and the conservative voter base supporting the monarchy and the military. The incumbent Prime Minister and ex-general, Prayut Chan-ocha, is running for re-election on a ticket of the United Thai Nation Party, which he joined only in December 2022. He has been in power since 2014, when his coup toppled the elected government, and he was elected in 2019 as a new-born civilian. His candidacy may be a move to consolidate the ruling coalition beyond April 2025 when his maximum six-year term as Prime Minister will end. Prayuth’s shaky coalition may have a chance to continue because of certain technicalities in Thailand’s election law. The Prime Minister is being elected by the 500 members of parliament and the 250 senators who are appointed and supposed to be “reliable”. If there is no clear majority for one of the candidates in the lower house, which is rather probable, the senate may tip the scale by joining one of the MP groups and support the incumbent. Thailand has experimented with changes of the election law and the balance between 400 MPs being elected in a first-past-the-post system with 100 more on party lists. Internal critics feel that this 400 to 100 balance favours the big parties. What may turn out as a surprise is the strength of the parties now in opposition. Leading in the polls is the Pheu Thai Party, the second reincarnation of Thaksin Shinawatra’s original Thai Rak Thai Party, which ruled from 2001 to 2006 and was dissolved in 2007. Its founder Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made billionaire, lives in exile, and his 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra is increasingly ahead of Prayuth in the polls, despite her lack of leadership experience. Prayuth has so far managed to defang the opposition, especially the charismatic Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, co-founder and leader of the Future Forward Party, dissolved in 2020, which resurrected as Move Forward Party and aims to end the military’s role in the country’s politics. This is particularly popular among the younger and more educated population and in urban areas. The Move Forward Party, which is campaigning as well for certain reforms concerning the political role of the monarchy, may be better prepared than in the last election, having had more time to identify candidates and campaign in the constituencies. Like in other countries in the region, especially in Indonesia, candidates are increasingly being vetted for their electability, a feature widely neglected in Western democracies, where self-declared leaders fight their way up to the candidacy. That does not guarantee at all that they are attractive to the voters. The bait should be appetizing for the fish and not for the fisherman.
Thailand’s party landscape is splintered and fluid. Parties come and go, are banned, and resurface under a new name. Speculating on future coalitions after the May 14 election is difficult, while other mechanisms like money politics and old traditions of vote buying can be game changers beyond the intentions of voters and the often-unreliable poll results. There is also the Bhumjaithai Party, the second biggest in the outgoing coalition, which is open for cooperation with Pheu Thai or Prayuth or Prawit, whoever wins and is open for compromises, not least in the distribution of cabinet positions. Prayut’s own support base has been weakened by a split in the military and his falling out with the influential general Prawit Wongsuwan from the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP). Both generals are promising a new political climate beyond the old divisions and promise to address the real issues of the people and the country. These are mainly the recovery after the Covid-slump, with a 6% contraction of the economy and many job losses in the important tourism industry. Now the tourists are coming back, and the outlook turns to cautious optimism for the second biggest economy of Southeast Asia. That might support Prayuth’s promise for continuity and stability, but it remains to be seen how strong the more anti-establishment drive by Pheu Thai and Move Forward will be at the ballot boxes in May. They are campaigning with promises, like an increased minimum wage, similar to the old establishment, but there is not much financial leeway to fund them without new debts or higher taxes.

The challenger: PM candidate Paetongtarn Shinawatra