Thailand’s youth reject military-backed establishment in elections

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Psephologists in the United States have long puzzled over the demographic moment when a younger generation of voters will form the single most important critical mass in American elections. In Thailand, it appeared to happen Sunday. Analysts had expected the country’s electorate to reject the military-backed establishment that has been in power since a 2014 coup. But they hadn’t quite predicted the extent to which voters would turn to an upstart faction, powered by Millennial and Gen Z energy.

The progressive Move Forward Party, led by 42-year-old Ivy League-educated business executive Pita Limjaroenrat, pulled off a stunning result, coming in first with a predicted 152 seats in the 500-seat lower house. In second with likely 141 seats was Pheu Thai, the main opposition party, led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the 36-year-old daughter of exiled populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The two opposition parties both secured far greater vote shares than the paltry 36 seats projected to have been won by the party of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former military leader who seized office following the 2014 coup and renewed his mandate through a controversial election in 2019. The election result offered, first and foremost, a blunt message to the army, which has a decades-long history of interrupting the country’s democracy.

“This is an unmistakable frontal rebuke, a rejection of Thailand’s military authoritarian past,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, told CNN. “It’s a rejection of military dominance in politics.”

Meet the Ivy-educated opposition leader who could end Thai military rule

An alliance between Move Forward, Pheu Thai and a number of smaller parties could command up to 60 percent of Thailand’s lower house. But that still may not be enough to oust Prayuth and his allies. Under rules established by the military-backed government, the job of prime minister is determined by a calculation combining both the 500 seats of the lower house and the 250 members of the unelected Senate, which is stuffed with boosters of the establishment. Thailand’s military leaders appoint all 250 senators. The race to secure an overall majority of 376 members backing a prime ministerial candidate may prove complex.

“The Election Commission has up to 60 days to finalize exact vote counts, though commission chair Itthiporn Boonprakong said last week that full, unofficial results would be released by May 19,” my colleagues explained. “Opposition parties and watchdog groups worried that the ruling establishment could attempt to rig the election in its favor.”

The opposition called on the upper house to respect the choices of voters. “If people show their determination or their expression in choosing who will carry their dreams and hopes, no one should disregard the will of the people,” Pita, now in pole position to form the country’s next government as prime minister, said at a news conference Sunday. “To go against the will of the people will not benefit anyone,” he added, referring to the Senate.

“It is hoped that all senators will respect the wishes of the majority and take part in the premier selection process in a constructive manner,” declared a Tuesday editorial in the Bangkok Post. “Failing to do so will lead to the Senate being remembered as the destabilizer of the democratic institution it is supposed to promote.”

Meet the Ivy-educated opposition leader who could end Thai military rule

Thailand banned protests and news that “could create fear” Oct. 17 as anti-government and anti-monarchy demonstrations escalate. (Video: Reuters)

Pita and Move Forward’s rise is an inflection point. It marks a departure from the interminable, chaotic seesaw between Thailand’s two rival camps, a tug-of-war that prompted the 2014 coup. That was the ceaseless clash between the “reds” — the populist faction once mobilized by Thaksin and his allies, representing a large swath of Thailand’s rural poor and urban working class — and the “yellows” — those more in favor of the supposed stability guaranteed by the military and loyal to the country’s influential monarchy.

The new element has somewhat disrupted that dynamic, fueled by a deep-seated desire among young voters for more radical, structural change. Pita’s party has campaigned on a significant program of changes that would defang the military and lessen the clout and reach of the monarchy. “The majority of votes reflect the need to escape from the Prayuth regime and the yearning for change,” Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist from Thammasat University, told BBC. “It shows that people believe in the Move Forward demand for change — many more people than predicted.”

My colleague Bryan Pietsch explained: “Pita has pledged to move Thailand out of what he calls a ‘lost decade’ of slow economic growth. Part of that plan, he says, includes diversifying Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy and spreading it out beyond the capital, Bangkok.

“He has said he would end military conscription — which he told Bloomberg News would help the economy — and has pushed for an end to Thailand’s lèse-majesté law, which criminalizes speaking poorly of the monarchy. Rights groups and critics say that such laws have been used by the country’s conservative establishment to target and persecute political opponents.”

Thai opposition leads vote count, spelling possible end to military rule

An entrenched political order now shows signs of crumbling. “Thailand is the only upper-middle income country that regularly has coups,” Joshua Kurlantzick, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Axios. “Young Thais are tired of the economy and politics being stuck in this archaic past, run by generals and kings.”

That frustration saw its expression in a huge round of protests in 2020, marked by an outpouring of youth support and a flowering of creative dissent on the streets to evade Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté law. The party that is essentially the predecessor of Move Forward was dissolved by Prayuth’s government — legal chicanery that only further fueled popular anger. Sunday’s election marked a rare moment in global politics when a suppressed protest movement found vengeance at the ballot box.

The question, though, is what Prayuth and his allies do next. When asked by reporters Tuesday whether he would step aside after his electoral humbling, Prayuth only mustered a tight-lipped “no comment.”

Some analysts suggest it may be too difficult for the generals to sweep this election result under the rug. “This time the defeat is so crushing and the ruling elite’s loss of support so devastating, it will be a very hard result to finesse, much less reject,” wrote political scientist Dan Slater, director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. “They need only look next door to Burma to see how bad things can get when a military ignores democratic elections and tries to rule without any meaningful support in cities and among the young.”

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