|Thailand Analytical Update | April 3, 2019
Authors: Riley Smith, Ella Duangkaew, David Mineo
|THAILAND ANALYTICAL UPDATE|
On March 24, the Thai electorate gathered for the first time in eight years to cast their votes in the 2019 General Election. During the election, Thai citizens voted for members of Parliament’s 500-seat lower house, which comprises 350 constituency seats—elected in a first-past-the-post system—and 150 party-list, or proportional representation, seats. Thailand’s 250-seat Senate has been appointed by the ruling military junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and is widely understood as loyal to the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), headed by current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Notable opposition parties in the 2019 election—listed in descending order of number of votes won—included the Pheu Thai Party, a holdover from former ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s party; the Future Forward Party (FFP), led by business tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit; the Democrat Party, headed by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva; and Bhumjaithai Party (BJT), noteworthy for advocating for the legalization of marijuana as part of its political platform.
On Thursday, March 28, the Election Commission (EC) publicly announced a preliminary vote count, which it claimed accounted for 100% of the votes at 75% voter turnout. The results indicated that PPRP won the popular vote with 8.4 million votes with Pheu Thai Party coming in second at 7.9 million. However, the unofficial results do not account for the party-list seats that each party won, leaving parties and the electorate in suspense as to the final count. However, the EC will likely delay releasing official election results until May 9, the latest date allowed by the Constitution, after which the new government will form. Until then, the NCPO government will maintain its role. The delay is intended to prevent interference of the May 4-6 coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and will allow the EC to account for reported voting irregularities, including discrepancies between the number of voters and ballots, reports of vote buying, as well as invalidated absentee ballots from Thai voters in New Zealand.
A key characteristic of the 2019 elections was that several newly inaugurated parties outperformed some of the older and more established political parties. Such was the case with the Democrat Party, whose leader, Abhisit Vajjajiva, resigned from his position on Sunday, March 24, upholding his promise to do so in the event that the Democrat party won fewer than 100 seats. Among the new parties the most popular was the FFP, a reformist party campaigning for government transparency and the promotion of social welfare. The FFP ended up coming in third in terms of the popular vote. BJT trailed closely behind the Democrat Party and will likely serve as kingmaker as both Pheu Thai and PPRP attempt to form governing coalitions.
The preliminary election results also revealed important demographic differences among voters. FFP won the majority of the youth vote (voters aged 18 to 25), who supported the party’s platform for sweeping, democratic-socialist reforms, including greater social welfare. On the other hand, PPRP won the majority of votes from older adults, who were supportive of the stability promised by the party made up of several Cabinet Ministers from the current administration. It is still too early to say definitively, but one of the lasting effects of the most recent elections could be a realignment of political preferences away from the traditional royalist-populist dichotomy to one that fall along generational lines.
As Pheu Thai won the greatest number of constituency seats and PPRP won the popular vote, both parties are claiming a mandate to form the new government. Whatever the outcome may be, PPRP and Pheu Thai will need to form coalitions to secure the premiership and form the next government. Pheu Thai has already formed a coalition with six additional parties—including FFP and the New Economics Party—giving it slightly more than half the seats in the lower house (253 seats), based on EC figures. Pheu Thai is now looking to form a coalition with kingmaker BJT and has announced it will support the BJT nomination for prime minister if a coalition is formed, though there are no reports indicating BJT’s inclinations. In spite of this, PPRP is expected to win at least 126 seats in the lower house, giving it both a majority of seats in Parliament across the lower house and the Senate and the ability to elect a Prime Minister.
While it is unlikely that Pheu Thai will secure the 376-seat majority necessary to elect a Prime Minister, any party or coalition that forms the next government is expected to win by a very slight majority, potentially leading to a short-lived government that may be characterized by political gridlock and instability. Under such a government, reform and the passage of legislation would be difficult. This prospect may interfere with the next government’s capacity to assume a leadership role in the region as it prepares to implement the Thailand 4.0 strategy and continue to serve as the 2019 ASEAN Chair. While it is still too early to gauge what Thailand’s political atmosphere will look like after May 9, there have been signs of tension as voters have complained of vote buying and electoral fraud, despite the presence of international observers monitoring the elections. Additionally, some parties have demanded that the EC explain the process by which it will calculate the number of party-list seats won by each party. Whatever the outcome, it is likely that the interim period will be one of calm as the EC investigates election irregularities and as Thailand awaits the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn before the official announcement of the election results, likely on or around May 9.