Thai opposition parties swept the board in Sunday’s nationwide election as voters delivered a powerful rebuke of the military-backed establishment that has ruled since a 2014 coup, capping years of rising anger over how conservative cliques have governed the kingdom.
Turnout was at a record high as voters flocked to calls for change, setting the scene for a potentially dramatic showdown as parties now begin jostling for coalition support to form a government under a junta-era constitution that still gives the military significant sway.
With more than 99% of votes counted, the progressive Move Forward party is projected to win 151 seats, with populist Pheu Thai in second place with 141 seats.
That puts the opposition far ahead of the party of incumbent Prime Minister – and 2014 coup leader – Prayut Chan-o-cha.
In the early hours of Monday, Move Forward’s leader Pita Limjaroenrat, who rode a wave of youth support on social media, tweeted his readiness to assume the leadership.
“We believe that our beloved Thailand can be better, and change is possible if we start today … our dream and hope are simple and straightforward, and no matter if you would agree or disagree with me, I will be your prime minister. And no matter if you have voted for me or have not, I will serve you,” he said.
In a news conference on Monday, Pita invited Pheu Thai and other opposition parties to form an alliance against Prayut. He said four other opposition parties have agreed to “join hands in forming a government” and that all sides would have to respect the poll’s outcome.
Pita, a 42-year-old Harvard alumni with a background in business, said the party would go forward with plans to amend the country’s strict lese majeste laws – a key campaign pledge despite the taboo surrounding any discussion of the royal family in Thailand.
One of his priorities is to support people facing jail terms on lese majeste charges after huge youth-led protests swept the country in 2020 with many rallies breaching taboos in openly calling for royal reform. Pita warned that if the law remains as it is, the relationship between the Thai people and the monarchy would only worsen.
The unofficial result delivers a damning verdict against Thailand’s military-backed establishment and traditionalist forces who were routed in the popular vote.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” said Susannah Patton, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute.
“Even the fact that you have a party that was articulating those views around reform of the lese majeste law, considering where Thailand was at only five or so years ago… it does introduce a whole new level of of unpredictability.”
Military have a head start
But while voters have delivered a vocal call for change by overwhelmingly voting to reject military-backed parties, it’s not clear who will take power.
That’s because the military establishment has made sure they maintain a huge say in who can lead, even if they lose the popular vote.
To elect the next prime minister and form a government, a party – or coalition – must win a majority of the combined 750-seat lower and upper houses of parliament.
But under the junta-era constitution, Thailand’s 250-seat senate is chosen entirely by the military, meaning it will likely vote for a pro-military candidate.
In 2019, Prayut’s military-backed coalition gained enough seats to elect him as prime minister and form a government, despite Pheu Thai being the largest party.
In a press conference Monday, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) said voter turnout was the highest on record at 75.2%.
“This is a delightful number,” said ECT Chairman Ittiporn Boonpracong. “It shows the determination of people to participate in this election.”
Ittiporn said the vote count was temporarily delayed because election officials wanted to ensure accuracy, and one polling station had to suspend voting due to severe rain.
Official results should be known in five days and it will take 60 days before the winners are endorsed, he said.
Unofficial results as of 4 a.m. local time, showed the Bhumjai Thai party in third position, projected to win 71 seats, while Prayut’s party United Thai Nation was on course for 35 seats.
Progressive party’s deliver crushing blow
Sunday’s election saw political juggernaut Pheu Thai, which has been the main populist force in Thai politics for 20 years and favorite in the polls ahead of the ballot, go up against parties backed by the country’s powerful conservative establishment, which has historically supported candidates connected to the military, monarchy and the ruling elites.
Pheu Thai is the party of the billionaire Shinawatra family – a political dynasty headed by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His daughter, 36-year-old Paetongtarn, contested the election as one of three prime ministerial candidates for Pheu Thai.
On Monday, Pheu Thai said in a statement it agreed to Move Forward proposal to lead the formation of a new government and congratulated the party for gaining the largest number of seats.
“We have to accept (the result) like any sportsmanship. When Move Forward has won as number one, we congratulated them, and we are cheering for democracy and the nation can move forward,” Paetongtarn told reporters Monday.
But this year also saw the emergence of the Move Forward party as an electrifying new political force. Its campaign included a radical national reform agenda, pledging structural changes to the military, the economy, the decentralization of power and even reforms to the previously untouchable monarchy.
It proved hugely popular among Thailand’s young people – including the more than 3 million first-time voters – who felt they had been forgotten through almost a decade of military-led or backed rule.
The election was the first since youth-led mass pro-democracy protests in 2020 demanded democratic and military reforms, constitutional change, and – most shockingly for Thailand – to curb the powers of the monarchy.
It was also only the second since the military coup in 2014, in which a democratically elected government by Yingluck Shinawatra was toppled by Prayut who then installed himself as prime minister.
CNN’s Heather Chen contributed reporting.