Changing Thailand: New Ideology, Old Politics

Recent Features

Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Changing Thailand: New Ideology, Old Politics

Despite the PM vote setback, the success of the Move Forward Party during the election has created a new dynamic in Thai politics – one that is likely to persist.

Changing Thailand: New Ideology, Old Politics

Supporters of the Move Forward Party march during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand, July 29, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

The victory of the opposition parties, the Move Forward Party (MFP) and Pheu Thai Party (PTP), at Thailand’s May 14 election marked the end of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s eight-year long administration. Prayut, a military general who came to power after the 2014 coup and maintained his position after the highly disputed 2019 election, has recently announced his retirement from politics. 

The overwhelming votes for the MFP in the election highlight a clear ideological divide and the mainstreaming of a hitherto radical stance among the Thais, considering the party’s intention to revise the lese-majeste law (Article 112 of the criminal code). But following a concerted effort to block the MFP from taking part in the governing coalition, it is unclear if the voters’ cries for change will be met.

MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat failed to secure the votes in Parliament to accede to the prime ministership. Now Pheu Thai is seeking to form a government with the Bhumjaithai Party, and the MFP has been pushed into the opposition. The frustration of Pita’s supporters over the outcome is profound, but despite the setback on the realpolitik front, the MFP’s electoral success has brought a new dynamic to Thai politics that is likely to persist.

The conservative parties secured less than half of the lower house seats in the 2023 general election, but combined with the votes in the 250-member Senate, which was appointed by the military junta, they control more than two-thirds of the votes in the two houses of Parliament. This conservative bloc has solidly refused to grant Pita the power to form a government, allowing Pheu Thai to take lead forming a new coalition government with the conservatives. However, falling short of forming a majority government themselves, the PTP will have to get support from one of the two parties led by former junta leaders, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon and former Prime Minister Prayut, or woo the MFP to vote for its prime ministerial candidate from opposition – something the MFP has already ruled out.

The PTP’s decision to form a government without the MFP has been interpreted by many as a political U-turn. Already, leaders of the Red Shirt movement, which has supported Pheu Thai and other parties associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have expressed worry with or disapproval of the party, and public demonstrations have taken place demanding that Pheu Thai stay in coalition with the MFP. Although forming a government without the MFP is a practical solution to the vote-blocking obstruction of the conservative parties and the Senate, this will come at a significant cost if Pheu Thai fails to reinstate its anti-military image. 

In the short-lived coalition, the PTP’s conflict with the MFP over the speaker seat had already indicated the two parties’ divergent strategies. But Pheu Thai’s moderate liberal stance and its non-commitment to radical aims, like the amendment of the lese-majeste law, will fail to meet many voters’ political demands.

The voters of both the PTP and MFP have faced violence perpetrated by the military, as recently as late 2022. Especially among the Red Shirts, the memories of the massacre of 2010 remain fresh. Their experiences have produced an emotional politics that refuses any compromises with the junta political establishment.

This dynamic could prove beneficial for the MFP in the long run, as Pheu Thai voters will likely flock toward the progressive party in the next election. That would be a political disaster for the PTP, as it would be forced to choose between winning over conservative voters or rebuilding its Red Shirt constituency. Its opponents will have an easy job of painting the PTP as politically unprincipled, and their remaining voters as personality cultists of the Shinawatra family.

But Pheu Thai’s emerging image problem isn’t only a result of its political U-turn. The party’s close association with the Shinawatra family is equally an issue. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in his disagreement with amending the Article 112 and the rumored “super-deal” with the military parties, contributed significantly to the fallout. These moves by the party’s leader-in-exile have alienated progressive voters, who see him as reactionary, and the Red Shirts, to whom the PTP’s former anti-militarism was foundational. The Shinawatras’ personal investment in the party is becoming a liability that will be difficult to resolve. 

In short, after the PTP’s U-turn, the two parties are on two diverging political trajectories. Unless Pheu Thai can rebuild its anti-militarist image, it will be between a rock and a hard place in the next elections, while all the MFP has to do its maintain its sentimental momentum and keep the radical spirit alive.

The Changing Ideological Landscape and the Military Establishment

Anyone familiar with Thai history knows that military interventions have been frequent in Thai politics, which begs the question of why the military establishment allowed such an open election to happen in the first place, and why it allowed the progressive movement to gain such the momentum.

The answer, perhaps, lies in the military elite’s confidence in its political control of the Parliament. Pita’s recent suspension from Parliament mirrors the dissolution of the Future Forward Party after the 2019 election, showing how the military establishment chooses to engage its opposition through its grip on the Parliament. That makes external military intervention unnecessary. 

The military’s faith in its core political game helps explain the Prayut administration’s inability to deal with scandals and PR failures. From Gen. Prawit’s luxury watches to its pandemic mismanagement, government missteps have become subjects of public mockery and anger, which indeed led to the junta’s failure in the election. But securing their parliamentary victory by having the senate outbalance the representatives allows the military-linked parties to sidestep this PR issue – and the electoral fallout – entirely.

Nevertheless, this gambit will not resolve the growing anti-establishment sentiment. The military’s past abuses have gained significant and widespread attention over the past years, not least because of the progressive camp’s vocal activities on human rights. Forced disappearances, undemocratic laws, and other violent suppression of public protests are now topics commonly known and often discussed in Thai society, both within the nation and among the Thai diaspora. These issues are deeply tied to the military’s history of abuses and the royalist-ultranationalist establishment.

The ideological shift toward liberalism and progressivism poses an irreversible challenge to the conservative establishment. The royalist-monarchist ideology solidified after Marshal Sarit Thanarat’s coup in 1957, and has been enforced since through highly regulated educational materials, policed public discourse, and media rhetoric. This ideology also justifies human rights abuses as acts of cultural and national security. The progressive rhetoric, in contrast, recasts such events as military oppression and seeks a more liberal society without strict ideological social rules and practices of indoctrination.

This dynamic creates a trilemma for the military. It has three options. 

It can engage with public anger and confront its royalist image and bloodied history, which would also call into question its own presence in politics. 

It can ignore this growing ideological shift and rely on its conservative parliamentary bloc, which, however, could be bypassed if a non-military coalition wins most the lower house or if the opposition is able to revise the Senate’s power. Factionalism within the conservative establishment could greatly threaten their parliamentary game as well.

Or it could intervene again with military force, but that would likely just further increase the progressive discourse and aggravate the economic consequences of political instability.

The Monarchy Among the Polarizing Population

The monarchy is facing similar problems. Thank to the monarchy’s strong relations with the military since Sarit’s coup, the progressives’ questioning of the authority has extended to the palace. Add to this severe economic inequality and King Vajiralongkorn’s unpopular image, and skepticism toward the institution’s cultural, political, and economic utility is widespread.

Historically, the military and the monarchy have mutually reinforced each other’s political and ideological hegemony. Unlike the military however, the monarchy’s social and political maneuvers are strictly limited to symbolic and ceremonial roles. This unwritten rule was well established by King Bhumibol in the nationally televised event that resolved the Black May riots in 1992.

Even today, a televised meeting with the king remains a popular image among his admirers. The has made clear the monarchy’s transcendental position vis-a-vis politics and social conflicts, which contrasts with the palace’s silence during past episodes of major violence. Subtly, it implies that the military’s political establishment does not necessarily represent the palace in politics, and that the palace does not have a say in the political progressions.

This plays into the hands of the MFP, which has repeatedly emphasized that its intention to revise the lese-majeste law is due to abuse of the law by conservative figures – but notably, not by the royal family itself. Abolishing the law would mean that people can openly discuss and criticize the palace and its networks; the law, therefore, is intricately linked to the suppression of such discourse. Its abolition would mean a new era of political discourse, to the dismay of the palace.

The palace has no real political course of action, either. If it were to address the shifting political mood, it would destroy its transcendental image and bring itself into the crossfire. Its fate remains tied to the conservative status quo, which the palace can only subtly influence through its proxies, while hoping that any such meddling will not be exposed.

In short, despite the setback in the prime ministerial voting, the victory of the MFP shows us the political will of a new generation in Thailand. The May 2023 election might well come to represent a turning ideological tide – one not only confined to electoral politics. Subtly, this liberal progressive movement has ignited an important discussion on political and social issues that have hitherto been mostly taboo. 

The movement’s key victory wasn’t winning the election but reframing the discourse on uttering silenced injustices. This is a radical turn, unlikely to be undone by whatever government in power.