Thailand’s Recent Election Results: A “Thai-breaker” or “Thai-Maker” for its Future Relationship with the EU?

On 14 May 2023, Thailand saw almost 40 million people head to the polls to vote in its first national election post-COVID, the largest turnout of any Thai election thus far. This election can be considered as one of the most significant political events in Thailand since the pro-democracy movement of the mid-1970s. Over 70 parties competed within the election, with over half of the votes going to two opposition parties: Move Forward and Pheu Thai. However, Thailand has found itself in a political stalemate as it still awaits the final outcome of the May election.

How the Thai elections work

Thailand’s government, modelled after the Westminster system, comprises three branches: the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary and has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932. This May 2023 general election saw the 500 seats of the House of Representatives up for re-election, with voters  given two ballots: one constituency vote to appoint the 400 district representatives, and the other vote to select national representatives from the 100 party-list. The Royal Thai Military, in accordance with the 2017 Constitution of Thailand, appoints members to the Senate, a nonpartisan legislative chamber, in which they serve five year terms – of which the 250 seats will be up for re-election in less than a year, in 2024.

The prime minister is chosen from a vote combination of both houses, with candidates needing to receive a total of 376 votes. Therefore, parties that are pro-establishment (i.e. pro Thai military and Royal Family) find themselves at an automatic advantage and are more likely to receive the support from the 250 senators appointed by the military. With that support they would only need 126 seats from the lower house (25.2% of the total vote) to gain a majority. 

The main parties that ran in the most recent election include Move Forward, Pheu Thai and United Thai Nation, but what do they stand for?

Pheu Thai

The Pheu Thai party is run by Paetongtarn Shinawatra – the daughter of former prime minister and party founder Thaksin Shinawatra. Pheu Thai evolved from the People’s Power Party (PPP) and the Thai Rak Thai Party, both of which were dissolved for violating electoral laws. In 2008, the Electoral Commission (EC) stated that there were “significant grounds to believe” that the PPP deputy leader had violated election laws by vote-buying in the December 2007 poll. However, despite this connection, Pheu Thai continued to lead in the majority of pre-election polls for the 2023 election, with the populist party being the most prevalent in the north and east of the country. 

United Thai Nation Party

The United Thai Nation Party (UTNP) was established in March 2021 and is considered right-wing, anti-communist and pro-establishment, therefore appealing to more conservative Thai voters. The party also has several ties to the incumbent governing party, Palang Pracharath, as prior to the 2023 election, several of its former members left to form the UTNP, including General Prayut Chan-ocha. General Prayut Chan-ocha is (in)famous for his coup d’état in May 2014, the 12th since the Siamese revolution of 1932. He was re-elected in 2019, when despite winning 116 seats against Pheu Thai’s 136, the military-appointed coalition in the Senate enabled the party to form a majority. General Prayuth joining the UTNP was seen as a scramble to rebrand and separate his image in a politically progressing Thailand away from Palang Pracharath. 

Move Forward Party

The Move Forward Party (MFP)  was established as a successor to Future Forward, a party that was dissolved by the courts after receiving a significant proportion of the votes in the 2019 election. The party also faced allegations from Palang Pracharath that they had violated election rules and were ought to be disqualified by the Electoral Commission. 

MFP has been the most successful radical party to confront the State, not shying away from criticising the military-backed establishment since the coup of 2014. They aim to eliminate conscription, reform the judicial system and reform Article 112 – a lèse majesté law in the Thai penal code which prohibits the defamation of the Thai Royal family. Should they manage to enter into power, MFP’s reformative philosophy would also impact Thailand’s international reputation, as the party’s drive for a more transparent democracy increases their interest in foreign policy efforts and international cooperation. 

Voter turnout

The May 2023 election saw over 75% of registered voters head to the polls, with the total vote being just under 40 million people. It was the largest total vote in Thailand’s electoral history. However, the age demographic of the voter turnout in this general election is noteworthy, as five million young people cast ballots for the first time in May 2023. Many of them participated in the protests following the 2019 election, calling for a reform to the political system and the role of the monarchy, leading to student-led demonstrations at the Thammasat University campus. Move Forward was also able to “capitalise” on its popularity through social media platforms such as TikTok which appealed to the new generation of voters. The Party’s TikTok account has over three million followers and has deepened the disconnect between the younger generation and those in power, with Move Forward successfully connecting to the younger generation, adding fuel to the youth’s already revolutionary fire. MFP has effectively utilised social media as a way to bind social movements and parliamentary politics. With 74.8% of social media users in Thailand ranging from 18-24 years old, it is evident that this newer form of campaigning is highly successful for attracting younger voters. Additionally, it is essential to note that Tiktok’s influence within this election was reinforced by the increasing use of Thai civil society promoting MFP, which encouraged people to engage in the democratic process and promoted a pro-democracy movement post-COVID.  Also to be noted is that while MFP initially appealed mostly to the younger generation of voters, they managed to expand their scope and gather a much wider spectrum of voters in the election.   

The outcome of the election and the role of the Senate

Move Forward achieved great success in the election, winning 32 out of 33 seats in the Thai  capital Bangkok, with the one seat only lost by four votes, as well as sweeping votes across the country – including traditional Pheu Thai stronghold Chiang Mai. However, Move Forward’s total election result of 151 seats did not give them a majority in the House of Representatives, forcing them to form a coalition with Pheu Thai’s 141 seats. The pro-establishment parties, such as Palang Pracharat and the United Thai Nation Party in comparison performed rather poorly, with the former winning less than half of the votes it obtained in 2019.

Results from the May 2023 election (Brookings)

However, despite the votes having been counted, a prime minister cannot be chosen until July 2023 as they have had to wait for the Electoral Commission to certify the results which has left Thailand in a politically unpredictable few months.  Should the courts have chosen not to confirm the coalition and disqualify the parties, as seen with Future Forward in 2020, this could spur protests and increase the risk of another military coup.

Currently, the MFP has invited Pheu Thai to form a coalition, giving them a comfortable majority of 313 seats out of the 500 available, with the Electoral Commission given up to 60 days after the vote to verify the results. The Electoral Commission comprises one chairman and four election commissioners, all of which are appointed by the King, under the guidance of the Senate. The political establishment that Move Forward stands against therefore forms the Electoral Commission, which heightened the suspense between the unofficial results and their verification. 

The MFP has many reformist ideas, including amending Article 112, that sees those who defame the monarchy face imprisonment; as well as to scrutinise defence budgets and remove conscription. The majority of the current senators are likely to oppose these proposed measures. This is, however, a large risk for the MFP as without the support of the senators a government will fail to form and a military coup may likely ensue. In addition, the likelihood of political malpractice through the delaying of the electoral process is heightened as   the Senate is due to be re-appointed by the upcoming sitting government in March 2024. Therefore, Pheu Thai’s role within the upcoming coalition will be key to maintaining the status quo in the Senate. Yet, time is getting short for the MFP as the new parliament is expected to assemble by 3 July 2023

What does the outcome of the election mean for the EU?

The election results show that Thailand’s voters are transitioning away from the ruling politics towards a system that is much more progressive and prioritises democratic values. The election result may therefore impact the EU in three different ways: 

  1. Politics

Should Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the MFP,  and his coalition be endorsed by parliament it would see Thailand solidify its rapprochement with the West, and especially the EU. Strategically, a democratically elected MFP-Pheu Thai coalition would facilitate things for the EU to work with the Thai government,  in comparison with the Prayuth government over the last decade. Additionally, the Move Forward-Pheu Thai coalition is likely to align with the EU on a number of subjects, including on Russia and the war in Ukraine. In particular since Pheu Thai has so far condemned the Russian invasion far stronger than Prayuth’s government, it is likely to continue along this path.

  1. Trade

Yet, it is the future and ongoing trade negotiations between the EU and Thailand that may be most affected by the political outcome of the election. Notably, the EU is Thailand’s fourth largest trading partner. Negotiations for an EU-Thailand Free Trade Agreement (FTA) were first launched in March 2013, after negotiations for an EU-ASEAN Free Trade Deal were stalled. Despite the EU-Thailand Free Trade negotiations being brought to a halt by the military coup of 2014, the EU has actively been broadening its engagement with Thailand in the meantime and has been attempting to resume negotiations on the FTA since the 2019 Council Conclusions. It would therefore be within the best interest of the EU to pursue an FTA with Thailand, as the EU is largely under-represented in comparison to other key investors in Thailand’s innovative sectors. An innovation-driven economy is key for Thailand’s economic development strategy. Hence, Thailand’s desire to improve its infrastructure and technology holds great potential for future trade and investments between the EU and the country. A more democratic coalition government could enable the FTA negotiations to progress further, while the MFP-Pheu Thai’s desire to expand Thailand’s foreign policy leaves the EU with a great opportunity to solidify its Free Trade deal and expand trade not only with Thailand, but also with ASEAN as a whole. Moreover, the pandemic has provided increased trade opportunities as the economic slowdown during the pandemic and decline in tourism to the region, especially from China, has forced Thailand to diversify its economy and mitigate its “China-dependence”. 

In view of the Lisbon Treaty it is also important to note the EU’s policy on sustainability and human rights clauses in its international agreements since 2014. The appointment of the democratically elected coalition government and its more progressive policies could thus be favourable to the negotiations and the approval of the FTA by the European Parliament. 

  1. Relations with ASEAN

As a significant trading and political partner for the EU, Thailand’s FTA with the EU’s Single Market holds a crucial role in strengthening the relationship between the EU and the ASEAN region as a whole, especially with the EU already having FTAs in place with Singapore and Vietnam. The EU’s Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis stated back in March 2023 that he was eager to relaunch trade negotiations with Thailand and believed a “modern and dynamic” FTA would strengthen EU trade ties within the Indo-Pacific region. 

Founded in the 1980 EU-ASEAN Cooperation Agreement, the new FTA would offer a new legal foundation for EU-Thai cooperation, one which is more equipped to face current global challenges. With this being the third EU-ASEAN FTA underway, the EU’s ties with Southeast Asia continue to intensify, also against the context of increasing Chinese and other influences in the region. The EU-Thai FTA would increase the attention of other members of ASEAN to renew their trade relations and relaunch their FTA negotiations with the EU.

The Road Ahead and What it  Means for the EU?

Despite the Thai Election Commission (EC) having verified the general election results on June 19, triggering a 15-day countdown for a new Parliament to convene, the road ahead is far from guaranteed.  A joint session of parliament will now choose the house speaker and prime minister with the results expected to be announced by mid-July. However, the EC has stated that they are still filtering through a number of complaints relating to the 14 May 2023 poll, indicating they would not be able to complete the process within the 60 days initially granted. Therefore, the EC currently has one year to investigate for electoral fraud, which if found, enables them to request for the Supreme Court to revoke their electoral rights and call for a new election. Furthermore, Pita, the MFP leader and possible new progressive Prime Minister, is facing investigations by the EC for holding shares in a television broadcaster during his political campaign. Even if Pita finds himself to become Prime Minister and the coalition government takes office, the year-long investigation would no doubt undermine the MFP and their governing of Thailand, after an almost decade-long military and military-backed rule.

Furthermore, the possibility of another coup or political upheaval could hinder the negotiation and signing of the FTA with the EU, especially given that the previous signing of the 2013 EU-Thailand Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) was delayed after the military take-over in 2014. Therefore, political upheaval following the processing of this election would most likely hinder the advancement of trade facilitations between the EU and Thailand, as well as delaying the overall progression of EU-ASEAN future cooperation. 

In summation, it is evident that Thailand’s recent election has been a momentous one. Yet, a great number of questions are left unanswered, leaving a lot of uncertainty when it comes to whether this is the beginning of a politically progressive decade for the country or instead a continuation of the previous one. However, the prospect of an FTA proves promising for future EU-Thai relations and would increase Thailand’s importance within ASEAN and the EU’s relations within Southeast Asia. The political upheaval related to the carrying-out of the election would need to turn out significantly problematic in order for it to become a “Thai-breaker” for the EU’s future relationship with Thailand. Rather, the prospect of an FTA and the MFP’s desire to play a more assertive role in global affairs proves to be more of a potential “Thai-maker”. As the relationship between the EU and Thailand strengthens, this could also just be the beginning of a new era. To be continued…

Author: Anna Losty, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo Credits: Pixabay