Parties: Prayuth Chan-o-cha government, Thaksin Shinawatra, PM Srettha Thavisin, Move Forward Party (MFP), Pita Limjaroenrat, Myanmar.
Thailand held elections on 14/05/2023 resulting in the nine year ruling military junta decisively losing to pro-democracy parties. The new progressive Move Forward Party won the overall vote. The party was founded in the midst of Thailand’s protests in 2020 with a program to break up economic monopolies, increase social welfare, and reduce the influence of the Thai military and monarchy. However, Pita Limjaroenrat, the MFP leader, could not secure enough votes from the military-controlled upper chamber to become prime minister.
On 23/08/2023, the Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn instead appointed Srettha Thavisin as prime minister, following months of negotiation between candidates with the consent of the military. Despite its anti-establishment past, the Pheu Thai Party brokered a power-sharing deal with 11 other parties linked to the military to form a new government.
On 23/08/2023, Thaksin Shinawatra managed to negotiate a return to Thailand after 16 years in exile. Prime minister between 2001 and 2006, he has been forced to accept the interests of the royalist and military factions which had launched a coup against him in 2006 for his social policies. On returning to Thailand, Thaksin was promptly handed out sentences by the Supreme Court for defaming the monarchy and corruption charges. However, it is expected that this will be shortened as he has negotiated with the military to reduce his jail time and play a large role in Thai politics through Srettha Thavisin. He has since been taken to hospital to be treated for several diseases.
The transformation of Thaksin Skinawatra from an enemy of the military to its compromise candidate is a new dynamic in Thai politics. The Thai conservative establishment saw Thaksin as a threat to the power of the military, with his influential Pheu Thai Party typically being seen as a political force for democracy. The Pheu Thai’s perceived acceptance of the conservative establishment in Thailand could lead to further protests in the country against the military’s machinations of the country’s politics.
Further protests are not unlikely in Thailand. The MFP ran and won on a program of pro-democracy, yet its leader was rejected by the military establishment. The manipulation of the electoral system by elites to protect the monarchy and military establishment could disappoint the young people who voted for the MFP. Disenchantment with electoral politics could see street protests against the authoritarian lese majeste laws similar to the widespread protests that took place in 2020.
On the international level, Thailand’s elections take place in the broader competition between China and the United States for influence in Southeast Asia. In terms of Thailand’s importance in Southeast Asia, there are two issues at stake. The military’s close relationship with China has led some Uyghurs fleeing China’s repressive policies to be deported from Thailand and returned to Xinjiang. For Myanmar, the Thai military is one of the strongest backers of the military junta in ASEAN. Whether Shinawatra will object to the deteriorating human rights situation and challenge the military’s accommodating position on the Myanmar regime remains to be seen.
With the closing of months of political in-fighting, Thailand has a new prime minister following nine years of military leadership. The military and the monarchy’s influence remains formidable in the current coalition. It remains to be seen how closely the Pheu Thai Party will contest the military in its policies toward Myanmar and China. The election poses a defeat for the country’s youth and democracy activists seeking to overturn the establishment and reinvigorate the country’s political system dominated by entrenched interests. Without taking on reforms, Thai politics could see further protests and political instability in the future. Despite this, Pheu Thai could at least provide a break from the incompetent military leadership which oversaw a slow economic recovery from COVID-19, faltering economic growth compared to Vietnam and Indonesia, and widespread corruption.