Opposition parties swept the board as Thai 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.
With more than 98% of votes counted in Sunday’s election, the progressive Move Forward party is projected to win 149 seats, with populist Pheu Thai in second place with 138 seats.
That puts them 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.
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 have made sure they still 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 minority government, despite Pheu Thai being the largest party.
The Secretary General of the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) will hold a news conference at 12:30 p.m. local time Monday to explain progress with the vote count.
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.
“We have to respect people’s voices. Whoever wins the election should have the right to form the government first,” Paetongtarn told reporters Sunday.
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.
Pita, a 42-year-old Harvard alumni with a background in business, said on Sunday he’d be open to forming a coalition government with the Pheu Thai party.
“It is definitely on the cards. We have proved time and time again that if we work together, we would be able to answer all the challenges that the country is facing,” he said Sunday.
Pita plans to address the Thai people at 12 p.m., and on Monday evening will board a campaign truck to “express our gratitude to the people,” he said in a tweet.
Military parties suffer defeat
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.
Prayut’s rise from military coup leader to prime minister has been marred with controversy, growing authoritarianism and widening inequality. Hundreds of activists have been arrested during his leadership under draconian laws such as sedition or lese majeste – the royal defamation law.
His military government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and economy also amplified calls for Prayut to step down and continued well into 2021.
He survived several no-confidence votes in parliament during his term which attempted to remove him from power.
CNN’s Heather Chen contributed reporting.