The elections in Thailand have ended with an unexpected result: In a major setback for the military, whose backed parties ruled the Southeast Asian country for nearly a decade, the Opposition, led by the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP), has won the most seats and the largest share of the popular vote.

With 99 per cent of votes counted, as per an Al Jazeera report, the progressive MFP, led by Pita Limjaroenrat and the populist Pheu Thai Party, led by Paethongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are likely to win about 286 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives. There’s, however, uncertainty about their ability to form the government since 250 military-appointed members of the upper house also vote on the prime minister.

The Election Commission data revealed that while the MFP had won 148 seats — 113 directly elected and 35 from the party list, the Pheu Thai Party had won a total of 138 seats — 111 directly elected and 27 from the party list.

The Kingdom of Thailand, one of the few constitutional monarchies in Asia, held its general elections on 14 May, 2023. While elections in most constitutional monarchies are procedural, in the case of Thailand, this one is of significance. At the outset, this was the second election to be held after the military takeover of the nation by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the then Commander of the Royal Thai Army (RTA) in 2014. Post-2014 military takeover, the Kingdom’s Constitution was revised in 2017 and subsequently, the nation went to polls in March 2019 to elect a parliament for a tenure of four years.

The kingdom, by far was one of the few places, in this part of the world that had not been formally colonised but has a legacy of military interferences in civil governance. This military adventurism, in the form of both as hard coup or soft/place coup, including judicial intervention, has been such that there is considerable uncertainty in tallying the number of such interferences since the advent of constitutional monarchy in 1932. At the conservative end, the tally varies between 12 and 13, however, at the outer extreme, this number is pegged between nineteen, to more than 30 that have been attempted in nearly a century. At the heart of this discrepancy lies the methodology that is used to tally coups in Thailand. At the extreme end of this tally, 19 military interventions include both successful and unsuccessful military coup attempt only and do not include ‘palace coups’/ political one-upmanship that have limited or no direct military intervention. Irrespective of this statistic, the legacy of political instability has resulted in the nation going through as many as 20 constitutions or charters since 1932, which too has contributed to the fragility of Thai polity.

The curse of geography

Since 1932, Thailand has consistently identified itself as a constitutional monarchy irrespective of the nature of administration at the helm of affairs. This character of the nation has also been consistently upheld and reinforced with each and every passing administration and Constitution. Resultantly, the Kingdom has the world’s most stringent lèse-majesté law in place, which now translates to elevating the monarchy to a status of a demi-god, with the 2017 Constitution stating that “the King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated”.

This has resulted in the King, traditionally a figure head office in constructional-monarchs, with considerable powers. This has resulted in multiple power centres such as the elected political representatives, the military and the royalists in the kingdom who among themselves have now come to dominate the political landscape of Myanmar. This has resulted in making the office of the prime minister a game of musical chairs and thus the tenure of the government of the day nebulous.

Another contributing factor to political instability also has to do with the unique geographical construct of the kingdom. At the outset, one of the limiting factors has been the uneven distribution of its population, which is shy of 72 million people. This is also reflected in parts in the overall spread of both population and wealth within the 76 provinces of Thailand which are loosely clubbed into four regions. For instance, the capital city of Bangkok alone contributed almost a third of the national GDP. The Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR), which includes the capital city, and the adjoining suburbs/districts together fall under the Central Thailand region, houses a seventh of the national population and accounts for a little more than 45 per cent of the total GDP.

This has resulted in a significant divide within Thai society between the relatively prosperous urban centres and under-developed rural regions of the nation. This urban-rural divide along with the fissure between the royalists and the general public that favours a populist government has come to dominate Thailand’s political landscape since the turn of the millennium.

Politics of the Shinawatra era

The social-economic divide in Thailand between the BMR and the rest of the nation was one of the key factors that had shaped the politics of the nation since the mid-1990s. One notable individual who had capitalised on this phenomenon was Thaksin Shinawatra, who comes from one of the wealthiest families in Thailand with a history of dabbling in politics. Prior to becoming the prime minister in 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra began his political career first as the Foreign Minster (1994–95) in the Chuan Leekpai government followed by as the Education Minster in 2001 and as Deputy Prime Minster between 1995 and 1997.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s political breakthrough came in 2001 when as the leader of the Thai Rak Thai Party became the prime minister of the Kingdom. He was able to sustain his political momentum by not only winning the re-election in 2005 but more importantly by becoming the first democratically elected premier to serve a full term. What lay at the core of his political constituency was his appeal to the general populace as a populist government. This thought was not without challenge as Thaksin was to face the Yellow Shirts – a mass protest that had accused him of corruption and abuse of power.

This protest resulted in a military coup in September 2006. Post-coup, the Thai Rak Thai was dissolved by the judiciary, but nonetheless resurrected itself first as the People’s Power Party and later as Pheu Thai Party. Shinawatra did make a political comeback in 2011 when it was able to secure a majority in the elections and Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra became the prime minister until her government was toppled in the 2014 coup. The success of Yingluck’s short-lived political sting in government was based on a similar electoral calculus of her brother Thaksin.

However, the electoral base of the Shinawatras has not eroded to any significant extent as the Pheu Thai Party was able to secure a respectable popular vote share of just under 22 per cent in the 2019 elections against the 23.3 per cent secured by the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party. However, with the changes brought about by the 2017 Constitution, the formation of government is not solely decided by the vote in the lower house of parliament but also includes the upper house. Owing to the overwhelming support that the Palang Pracharath enjoyed in the upper house, General Prayut Chan-o-cha was able to secure a parliamentary mandate for the government in 2019.

While the military-backed parties must be disappointed with the result, the Pheu Thai Party too won’t be too happy as the party had hoped for a landslide. But with the MFP it can give a strong contention for power. All eyes will be on Bangkok to see whether the MFP and Pheu Thai Party can come together to form a government, or the military-backed parties will have the last laugh.

The author holds a PhD in Indian Ocean security, preceded by MPhil and MA in Defence & Strategic Studies. He has been working as a Research Analyst in various think tanks in Delhi, and is at present with the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA). Views expressed are personal.

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