Thailand must ‘Move Forward,’ voters roar in rebuke to military rule

Supporters cheer Move Forward Party on Friday. Photo: Move Forward Party
Supporters cheer Move Forward Party on Friday. Photo: Move Forward Party

Thailand chose a path of change and reform in a voice it hopes will be too loud to be ignored Sunday, with the triumph of an upstart political party on track to win the popular vote handily, according to unofficial returns.

According to just over 99% of the vote counted Monday morning, the young and progressive Move Forward Party had 14.1 million votes, or 36%, followed distantly in second by the legacy opposition party of Pheu Thai, with 10.7 million, or 27%. The military party proxy of incumbent Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha won only 4.7 million votes, or 12% of the vote.

After weeks of mounting anxiety, the nation signaled it wanted to turn the page from two decades of armwrestling between military rule and electorally potent Pheu Thai’ political dynasty in favor of a new generation vowing to chart a course that makes sense again after a generation of lopsided rule.

“I, Pita Limcharoenrat, am ‘clear’ and ‘ready’ to be the 30th prime minister of Thailand,” the leader of the Move Forward Party tweeted just before 2:30am on Monday morning after unofficial early returns showed a complete  upset by his party that defied what had been conventional wisdom. “We have the same dreams, the same hopes, and we believe that Thailand that we love can be better. Change is possible if we start doing it today.”

Move Forward’s victory made a large dent in the perceived inevitability of the Shinawatra clan after its Pheu Thai Party, which won polls for decades until coming a close second to the military proxy party in 2019’s flawed election, did not come out on top.

Just over 39.3 million votes had been counted, putting turnout close to 75%.

All bets had been on the long-popular party of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra flexing its muscles once again, only to have voters choose a five-year-old political movement that was willing to lash its future to reform of the monarchy, over the top.

The electorate did not seem impressed by 73-year-old Thaksin’s attention-seeking, 11th-hour tweets vowing to return home by July.

Unofficial results as of Monday morning. Source: Election Commission

While the winds of change had been blowing, fear of electoral mischief or a judicial coup seemed partially allayed by Move Forward’s landslide victory, leaving Pheu Thai as well as the parties of the undemocratic military uncles in the dust.

Still, no one was taking things for granted.

In the days before the election, the wheels had been turning to gin up a legal case against Move Forward’s Pita, a case with much of the same contours as that which led to Move Forward’s popular original founder, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit being barred from taking office after what was then the Future Forward Party placed third in 2019.

At about 8:30pm, Move Forward issued a call for people to photograph their local tallies in case of mischief, as the Election Commission had only reported 2% of unofficial results by 8pm. 

“This problem has never happened. In the 2019 elections, the votes were compiled incorrectly from the actual vote. We would like to ask everyone to help protect the people’s vote as best as possible. and submit scores to the media Sending votes to vote62 website to confirm that the ECT will not include the wrong vote due to errors or delays in the ECT’s system.”

But those fears at least proved unfounded, as the results poured in, and Move Forward’s early lead only increased as the votes were tallied.

Rushed by reporters late Sunday night, Gen. Prayuth, who has led the government since seizing power from an elected government in 2014, had little to say. His party has made no comment on the vote. 

Pita is a 42-year-old Harvard University graduate and businessman. He emerged from Thanathorn’s shadow to build a large following of his own.

But, under the rules written by Prayuth’s junta favoring military rule, any opposition party or coalition will need nearly three times the votes in the lower house as the military proxies to seat a prime minister. Thus will begin the expected horse trading as parties test their influence against previous vows about who they would and would not partner.

Update: Pita vows to lead Thailand and reform the monarchy after shock landslide win

As of Monday morning, both Move Forward and Pheu Thai were on track to secure 112 seats each, followed by Bhumjaithai with 68. Military proxy parties Palang Pracharath was on track to win 39 followed by United Thai Nation with 23. The Democrat Party, a reliable partner to the military status quo, counted 22. As for party list seats, the Election Commission said that more than a dozen parties had so far won seats including Move Forward (39), Pheu Thai (29), United Thai Nation (13), Bhumjaithai (3), Democrat (3).

The commission has 60 days to certify the final outcome.

Given that the entire upper house of 250 senators is appointed by the military and each holds voting rights for the top job, wresting power from the military is likely to require 375 seats to elevate an alternative. The military faction only needs 125 from the 500-member lower house.

There was some optimism from the cannabis quarter. If military rule and cannabis decriminalization were two big questions the election would decide, there remained opportunity that Bhumjaithai, which staked its cred on legal weed and has for decades proven the decisive coalition block, to show it can be pragmatic once again by throwing its hat in with the progressive side to save legal weed.

Conversely, grumblings were spreading of a wounded Pheu Thai, loyal to itself above all else, going back on its promise not to align with the military to shut out the public’s preference for a new generation.

The results show Move Forward was not only a youth choice, as had been conventional wisdom going into Sunday. Online, young likely Move Forward voters shared anecdotes of their old-guard conservative parents confiding proudly that they had voted for Move Forward. 

As expected, Bangkok was a complete sweep for Move Forward, whose candidates won all 33 constituencies but for the 20th in Lat Krabang district, where the pro establishment Phalang Pracharath candidate was only ahead by four of about 90,000 votes with 97% of unofficial results counted.

But elsewhere, the party scored wins in the south, north and northeast, all traditional strongholds of legacy parties. 

Ten years of military rule has produced an electorate with a very different mood. A decade ago, enough Thais were willing to set aside democratic norms in favor of the military to dislodge Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck, who had handily won the popular vote. But years of accumulated scandal, mismanagement and increasingly out-of-touch rule seemed to reinvigorate an appetite for ballot box accountability.


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