Thailand's Election

19 May 2023

Thailand’s election is finished, and people are asking what will happen next. Several headlines and articles suggested the results of the election were a triumph for the opposition, and “set up a show down” over the lese majesty law and the role of the Thai monarchy. But the truth of the matter is a little less optimistic.

The political parties Move Forward (opposition) and Pheu Thai (roots in Thaksin) between them earned 293 seats. However, the last time the military was in charge (after the 2014 coup), a new constitution established a National Assembly made up of a 500-seat House of Representatives and a 250-seat Senate that was appointed by the military. All 250 seats.Mr. Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward party, which earned the most seats, has declared himself ready to be PM, and has a coalition of parties that will give him 313 votes. But Not So Fast. The PM has to be elected by the whole of the National Assembly–750 seats in all (remember, of which 250 are military-controlled. In order to gain a majority, you have to have 376 votes–and that Mr. Pita does not have. To reach a 376-vote majority would require more parties to work together, and this is problematic. As one example, Bhumjaithai has already said it will not vote for a PM who supported amending the country’s royal insult laws. Simply splitting one of the four groups off from the others would be enough to avoid the 376-votes.

Further, once a government has been formed, avoiding gridlock will be problematic. The House of Representatives creates legislation, but the Senate must approve it–and there is no provision for override. Once a bill passes, if the King “vetoes” (refuses royal assent), the veto could be overriden–but only by 2/3rds majority of both houses. The likelihood of this seems slim.

These sorts of things illustrate the difficulties in governing that the opposition will have. Yes, the Thai military ruled out a post-election coup: “there’s no chance, zero chance.” Well, they’re hardly needed to be, absent a sudden surge in violence. In a sense, this situation “releases steam” by allowing an enthusiastic election of “opposition” parties–but prevents any change to the power of the military & monarchy.

What might be some scenarios for the future, given this situation?

  1. Continuation: the parties form a government, and manage to govern and introduce some reforms (although none that change the relationship with the monarchy).
  2. Limits: a lot of political theater ensues, as the government makes a show of introducing reforms which are duly swatted down by the Senate. Political gridlock and much handwringing may spark protests.
  3. Disintegration: in this scenario, the military “plays hardball” and doesn’t allow any reforms. Protests get started, spread widely and become significant. Despite the military’s assurances, it takes control. Civil unrest begins.
  4. Disruption & Transformation: by some wildcard/black swan event, the 376 vote majority is reached on a critical issue (like the laws related to the monarchy)–or, perhaps, a new constitution is brought into play (a source noted to me that Thailand has had 20 new constitutions/charters since 1932). I can’t envision how this might happen–the current governmental structure would seem to make a new constitution, for example, almost impossible–but then, that’s why it’s called a black swan event.

When you’re writing a newsletter that focuses on scanning the whole of the unreached world, you can’t be an expert in any single location–and I certainly wouldn’t claim expertise on Thai politics. But my estimate is that the Continuation and Limited Protest scenarios above are the most likely. No one wants a repeat of the 2014 coup. Giving a veneer of recognition to the opposition, permitting “business as usual,” while keeping the monarchy & military firmly in control behind the scenes seems the most likely line for the next few years. Thailand wants to see its economy booming, which means welcoming tourists, which means keeping things calm. I would be surprised to see any headlines about the monarchy, military, or lese majesty laws being overturned, but I would be unsurprised to see headlines about some protests cropping up. I doubt it will go so far as to provoke widespread civil unrest, violence, or a crackdown by the military. I suspect the work of believers will continue with very little interruption. A severe “limits” or a “disintegration” scenario could lead to general societal constraints which could impact Christian work, but this appears less likely in the short-term future.