Thailand’s opposition parties have secured by far the largest number of votes in national elections, delivering a damning verdict to the military-backed government that has ruled the country for nearly a decade.
Move Forward, a progressive opposition party popular with young Thais that surpassed expectations by winning the most votes and seats, said on Monday that it was ready to form a government. Its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, told media he had invited Pheu Thai, the party associated with the exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and four other opposition parties to form an alliance.
“I am Pita Limjaroenrat, the next prime minister of Thailand,” he told reporters in Bangkok, vowing to be a “prime minister for all”.
Pheu Thai later confirmed it had agreed to Pita’s proposal to form an opposition coalition.
For any of the opposition parties to take power they need to form a coalition that has numbers strong enough to pass through a system that is weighed in favour of the military-backed candidates.
A future prime minister will be voted on not just by the 500-seat house of representatives, whose membership is be dictated by the election results, but also by the senate, whose 250 members were appointed by the military after the last coup. It is unclear if senators’ votes will reflect the will of the people, especially given Move Forward’s ambition to reform Thailand’s lèse-majesté law.
Pita Limjaroenrat warned of a “hefty price” to pay if there was interference in the election outcome that would lead to the formation of a minority government.
The Election Commission chair, Ittiporn Boonprakon, said the Move Forward party had secured 151 of 500 available seats, while Pheu Thai had 141 seats. The numbers would need to be confirmed before they could be pronounced as official, which would happen within 60 days.
He said voter turnout was the highest recorded, 75.22%.
Prayut Chan-ocha, a former army chief who first came to power in a coup in 2014, and who had run a staunchly nationalist campaign, was trailing far behind with 36 seats. However, this is sufficient for him to still be in the running for prime minister, in the event he can cobble together a coalition.
Move Forward, which wants to reform Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law, a taboo topic, and has taken a strong stance in calling for military reform, shocked even some of its own supporters by outperforming expectations on Sunday. Throughout the national count, it was neck-and-neck with Pheu Thai, a heavyweight opposition party that had been aiming to win by a landslide.
Over the past two decades, parties linked to the Shinawatra family have repeatedly proved unbeatable at the ballot box, winning the most seats in every election since 2001.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, described the results as “staggering” and “historic”. Pheu Thai had campaigned using its old approach of populist policies he said, but added: “Move Forward takes the game to the next level with institutional reform. That’s the new battleground in Thai politics.”
This was the first election in which the lèse-majesté law was openly discussed by candidates – a change brought about by the 2020 youth-led mass protests where activists risked jail to call for the influence and wealth of the monarchy to be curbed.
Move Forward, whose own candidates have been charged under the law, is the only party to make a clear commitment to reforming it. Pheu Thai said the matter should be discussed in parliament but is strongly opposed to the law being scrapped, while Conservative parties all fiercely oppose any change.
Pita, a 42-year-old former executive of a ride-hailing app, told reporters: “The sentiment of the era has changed and it’s right. And today it’s a new day and hopefully it’s full of bright sunshine of hope going forward.”
A joint session of the House of Representatives will be held with the Senate in July to select the new prime minister.
It is unclear how senators will vote. Somchai Sawangkarn told Reuters, that any candidate “must be honest and not cause problems in the country. Hitler was elected in a majority but led the country to world war … If there is a possibility of creating division in the country, I will not vote for them.”
Opposition candidates could also face court cases that could prevent them from staying in power. Move Forward is the reincarnation of Future Forward, an equally outspoken party that performed well in the 2019 election and was closed down by the constitutional court the following year, after it was accused of breaking funding rules. Last week, a complaint was filed against Pita, claiming he owns undeclared shares in a media company. He has denied any wrongdoing. Complaints have also been filed against Pheu Thai.
On Sunday, Prayuth slipped away quietly from his United Thai Nation party headquarters, where there were few supporters to be seen. “I hope the country will be peaceful and prosper,” Prayuth told reporters. “I respect democracy and the election. Thank you.”
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report