The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thai opposition leads vote count, spelling possible end to military rule

Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party, at its headquarters in Bangkok on Sunday. (Sakchai Lalit/AP)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Thaksin Shinawatra as the former president of Thailand. He is the former prime minister. The article has been corrected.

BANGKOK, Thailand — Opposition parties in Thailand took a commanding lead in the country’s parliamentary election on Sunday, according to an official vote tally, potentially signaling the end of the military’s nearly decade-long rule here.

With more than 80 percent of the ballots counted, the two biggest opposition parties had garnered well over 50 percent of the popular vote for the House of Representatives late Sunday, according to the Election Commission.

The election has been touted as a pivotal moment for Thailand, which was once seen as a robust democracy but has been led since 2014 by an authoritarian military establishment aligned with the monarchy. Ousting the military could mean a return to democratic rule, analysts say, with wider implications for the Southeast Asian region. Also at stake is the legitimacy of traditional institutions such as the military and the monarchy, revered by older citizens but increasingly challenged by the younger generation.

Thai voters could oust military from power — barring election fraud

By Sunday night, Move Forward, a progressive, youth-oriented party that has sought to curb the powers of the Thai monarchy, had won the most votes. It made a surprising surge past Pheu Thai, the party of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which was widely expected to dominate.

Move Forward was also set to win the most number of seats in the House of Representatives, a 500-member body, coming out ahead even in Pheu Thai strongholds. The party “has taken this election by storm,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “It’s breathtaking — a political earthquake.”

On the other side, the Thai military’s two proxy parties, Ruam Thai Sang Chart and Palungpracharat, trailed with 12 and 10 percent of the popular vote, respectively. But there was still a chance they could emerge victorious, thanks in part to a constitutional provision that gives Thailand’s military leaders the power to appoint all 250 members of the Senate.

Thailand’s prime minister is elected by both chambers, meaning the opposition must win the House by large margins — but both parties have vowed not to form coalitions with their pro-military counterparts.

“If people show their determination or their expression in choosing who will carry their dreams and hopes, no one should disregard the will of the people,” Pita Limjaroenrat, Move Forward’s leader and prime ministerial candidate said at a news conference as the vote count was underway. “To go against the will of the people will not benefit anyone,” Pita said, referring to the Senate.

The Election Commission has up to 60 days to finalize exact vote counts, though commission chair Itthiporn Boonprakong said last week that full, unofficial results would be released by May 19. Opposition parties and watchdog groups worried that the ruling establishment could attempt to rig the election in its favor.

Early last week, a candidate for Palungpracharat, a pro-military party, accused Move Forward’s Pita of failing to declare past ownership of stocks in a now-defunct media company. Ruangkrai Leekitwattana of Palungpracharat said he had petitioned the Election Commission to investigate the issue, which he claimed was a violation of election rules.

But supporters of Move Forward said Ruangkrai’s accusation was a spurious attempt to undermine Pita, who had surged to the top of national polls in recent weeks, drawing massive crowds even outside the party’s urban strongholds. In 2019, the Constitutional Court, which has links to the military, leveled a similar accusation against the leader of Future Forward, an earlier incarnation of Move Forward, forcing the party to eventually disband.

Elections could oust Thai military after a decade in power: What to know

At rallies and polling stations this weekend, voters said they were skeptical the elections would be carried out in a free and fair way. “I will do what I’m able, which is to go out and vote,” Vitsarut Tangsuppayakorn, 32, a Move Forward supporter, said at a rally Friday.

Benjaporn Triluksanawi, 44, also a Move Forward supporter, said Sunday that people are suspicious because the Election Commission has often not provided enough transparency — in 2019, for example, it took six weeks to tabulate final results using a complex formula that was heavily criticized by opposition groups.

“We want to see change,” said Benjaporn shortly after casting her vote in central Bangkok, “We’ve been in stasis for too long.”

The election has unearthed deep fault lines in Thai society, pitting an older generation that sees the military as protectors of the crown against the country’s youth, who say Thailand has languished under military rule.

Move Forward and its supporters have publicly questioned the powers of the royal family, a profoundly taboo topic until recently.

Wanida, 82, who declined to share her last name, said she has seen these forces divide her family. Most of those in her generation support the ruling government but many of the family’s 11 grandchildren believe in Move Forward — some so fervently that they refuse to talk to her about politics anymore.

“The new generation has been provoked by some kind of ideology,” said Wanida, a retired university professor. “And they don’t respect their elders.”

Wearing a mask and a cardigan, she had voted at a polling station in Bangkok just moments before Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrived in a black Mercedes car to cast his vote. As reporters swarmed the retired general, she hobbled away toward a quiet sidewalk. Even if the results don’t end up being what she wants, she said, she’ll try to let it go.

“My time,” she added, “is almost up.”