The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Thai vote shows deep desire for change — if the generals will allow it

Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat waves to his supporters during a victory parade in Bangkok on May 15. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)
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Some 40 million voters in Thailand delivered on Sunday an unmistakable message: They are unhappy with nine years of military rule and want change. The official results aren’t expected for weeks, and there will be a period of intense jockeying among the parties to form a governing coalition. But the generals who have ruled the country since 2014 should respect the people’s unequivocal verdict and return to the barracks. This is far from guaranteed, even though, in the long term, it is neither in Thailand’s or in its military’s interest to suppress the popular will.

The pro-democracy camp’s success on Sunday was expected from opinion polling, but the depth of its victory was breathtaking. The urban-based, progressive Move Forward party was projected to come out on top with around 151 seats, followed by Pheu Thai, the latest iteration of the populist political machine of an ousted prime minister now in exile, Thaksin Shinawatra, with around 141 seats.

Mr. Thaksin’s parties have won every free Thai election for about the past two decades, but the military has repeatedly either kept the party from power through the courts or ousted it in coups. Pheu Thai is now led by Mr. Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, who had been leading in many pre-election polls.

Move Forward is led by Pita Limjaroenrat, a 42-year-old Harvard Kennedy School alumnus and a business executive. The late surge of support for Move Forward appears to have come from millions of first-time voters who might have also been tired of the dynastic politics represented by Pheu Thai, meaning that voters opted for a major political realignment.

Smaller opposition parties also scored well, and all the pro-democracy parties seem willing to work together to form what should be an overwhelming bloc for change.

The biggest loser appears to be current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup and retired from the military to be an ostensible civilian government leader. His United Thai Nation Party is poised to come in fifth place in the constituency vote, with only around 36 parliamentary seats. Mr. Prayuth, who polls show is widely unpopular after nine years in power, had campaigned on a promise of continuity — something Thai voters clearly rejected. Mr. Prayuth’s party came in behind even a rival military party led by his erstwhile deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan, who is also a retired general.

The two main opposition parties were both considered unpalatable to the military. The generals disliked and feared Pheu Thai for its populist brand of politics that particularly appeals to poor Thais in the country’s northeast. Both Mr. Thaksin and later his sister were deposed. But Move Forward represents an even bigger threat to the military and the conservative elements in Thai society, for example by pledging to end military conscription and modify the country’s strict “lèse-majesté” law that makes it illegal to criticize the king.

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That so many Thais, particularly young people, were willing to vote for a party that openly advocated a change to the law protecting the once-revered monarchy is itself a sign of the dramatic change underway in Thailand. The question now is whether the conservative forces, including the military and the monarchy, will respect the people’s wishes. Mr. Pita on Sunday said his party had no intention of backing down on its campaign pledges.

It’s not a given in Thailand that the soldiers will stand down, despite their resounding repudiation at the polls. Under the constitution they designed to guarantee a dominant military role in politics, the next prime minister will be chosen not just by the 500-member House of Representatives. A 250-member Senate, appointed entirely be the ruling junta, also has a vote for prime minister, meaning the military can still suppress this popular surge.

So while many Thais are elated, some caution — and vigilance among leaders in the United States and other democracies — is still needed. One need to look at Thailand’s neighbor, Myanmar, where the popular party of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi scored a landslide victory in elections in November 2020, only to see the military take power three months later and annul the result. Myanmar has been gripped by civil war ever since.

The tragedy there should be a cautionary note to any generals in Thailand thinking of defying their country’s legitimate election results. As the Thai political system wrangles over Sunday’s results, the Biden administration and other foreign observers should make this point clearly and often.

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