Thais on Sunday cast votes against their military leaders, backing instead a populist political mainstay and a progressive upstart bent on shaking up the status quo.
Voters in Thailand overwhelmingly sought to end nearly a decade of military rule on Sunday, casting ballots in favor of two opposition parties that have pledged to curtail the power of the country’s powerful conservative institutions: the military and the monarchy.
With 97 percent of the votes counted early Monday morning, the progressive Move Forward Party was neck and neck with the populist Pheu Thai Party. Move Forward had won 151 seats to Pheu Thai’s 141 in the 500-seat House of Representatives.
In most parliamentary systems, the two parties would form a new governing coalition and choose a prime minister. But under the rules of the current Thai system, written by the military after its 2014 coup, the junta will still play kingmaker.
The election had widely been seen as an easy victory for Pheu Thai, the country’s largest opposition party founded by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A billionaire tycoon, Mr. Thaksin, 73, was ousted in a coup in 2006 after accusations of corruption, but he is still fondly remembered as a populist champion for the rural poor. Polls had showed that Mr. Thaksin’s youngest daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, was the leading choice for prime minister.
But in a surprise, the Move Forward Party, a progressive political party that called for upending old power structures and amending a law that criminalizes public criticism of the monarchy, made stunning strides, capturing young urban voters, and the capital, Bangkok.
“We can frame this election as a referendum on traditional power centers in Thai politics,” said Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “People want change, and not just a change of government, they want structural reform.”
The key question that many Thais now have is whether the military establishment, which has long kept an iron grip on Thailand’s politics, will accept the result.
Move Forward has targeted institutions and policies once considered sacrosanct in Thai society, including mandatory military conscription and the laws that protect the king from criticism. And having the Pheu Thai Party in government could effectively place the party’s founder and one of the military’s top rivals, Mr. Thaksin, back at the center of the country’s politics.
The results were a humbling blow for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who governed Thailand for almost nine years, the longest stretch of military governance in a nation used to coups.
Mr. Prayuth has presided over a lagging economy, and in 2020 waged a harsh crackdown on protesters who gathered in the streets of Bangkok to call for democratic reforms. Although Thailand is one of two formal U.S. allies in Southeast Asia, he distanced himself from Washington and leaned closer to Beijing.
As of early Monday, it remained unclear who would ultimately lead the country. The junta rewrote the country’s Constitution in 2017 so that selecting the prime minister would come down to a joint vote between the 250-member military-appointed Senate and the popularly elected House of Representatives. The decision could take weeks or months.
Because both Pheu Thai and Move Forward do not have enough seats to form a majority, they will need to negotiate with each other and other parties to establish a coalition.
Analysts said Move Forward’s stance on changing the royal protection law might complicate negotiations for forming a coalition. Before the vote, Move Forward attempted to moderate its position on the measure, toning down its calls for reform.
But on Sunday, Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of Move Forward made it clear that the amendment was still high on his party’s agenda, saying they now have enough members of Parliament to push it forward.
“So it’s not conditional, it’s already absolute that we are going with it,” he said.
Mr. Pita, 42, a former businessman, was fielded as Move Forward’s leader after the country’s Constitutional Court dissolved the party’s previous iteration, the Future Forward Party, in 2020, and barred the party’s senior executives from politics for 10 years. A graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Pita is a charismatic speaker, who called on voters to create “a new history in Thai politics.”
His background as a technocrat contrasts with the leading contender from Pheu Thai, which has sought to promote Ms. Paetongtarn, Mr. Thaksin’s youngest daughter.
Ms. Paetongtarn, an executive in her family’s hotel management company with little political experience, was selected to run after her father said people “wanted to see a Shinawatra family representative as a force in the party.”
She proved to be an effective campaigner, stumping even in the last weeks of her pregnancy. (She gave birth on May 1 and quickly returned to the campaign trail.)
The strong showing for Move Forward was remarkable for a party that was thought to be too radical for the general population. Move Forward ran on a platform that included legalizing same-sex marriage and a $13 daily minimum wage.
The election was cast as an existential struggle for the future of the country. Both Pheu Thai and Move Forward campaigned on pledges to return Thailand to the path of electoral democracy, calling on people to reject the “uncles” or the “Three Ps,” referring to the generals who have governed Thailand since the coup: Mr. Prayuth, Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit “Pom” Wongsuwan and Interior Minister General Anupong “Pok” Paochinda.
Move Forward was even more emphatic in saying that it would never work with military-backed parties, a stance that drew more voters to the party. Several youths who had joined the 2020 protests campaigned as first-time candidates for Move Forward in the election.
The vote underscored just how politically fragmented the nation of 72 million is now. No longer is it split between the “red shirt” pro-Thaksin protesters from the rural north and the “yellow shirt” anti-Thaksin faction made up of royalists and the urban elite. Now it is divided along generational lines.
On Sunday, millions of Thais lined up in roughly 100-degree heat to cast their vote.
“I really hope for change,” said Saisunee Chawasirikunthon, 48, an employee at a telecommunications company. “We have lived with the same old thing for the past eight years.”
During his final rally on Friday, Mr. Prayuth, the former general, urged voters to choose continuity, playing a video that showed graffiti on the Democracy Monument in Bangkok and a young girl uploading a pornographic clip of herself because she had “freedom.”
“We don’t need change that flips the country,” he said.
For the past century, Thailand has swung between civilian democracy and military control, with the armed forces engineering a dozen coups within that period. On Thursday, Narongpan Jitkaewthae, Thailand’s army chief, took pains to assure the public that things would be different this time.
He said that the country had learned its lessons from its past, and that “politics in a democratic system must continue,” although he added that he “cannot guarantee” that another coup would not happen.