Thailand election sees junta trailing far behind progressive opposition in ‘historic’ victory for democracy

Thailand’s opposition Move Forward party has surged ahead in the results from Sunday’s election, with the main military-backed party trailing far behind in fifth place.

Current prime minister and ex-general Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who led the 2014 coup to install the junta that has led the country for the past nine years, said he would accept the “democratic process” in an apparent admission of defeat.

Move Forward was set to take 151 of parliament’s 500 seats, ahead of major opposition party Pheu Thai on 141 seats. A Pheu Thai government led the country up until being ousted in the 2014 coup.

Mr Prayuth’s United Thai Nation party was seen winning just 36 seats, according to data from the Election Commission of Thailand.

Move Forward’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, declared victory and said he is ready to be the country’s next prime minister.

In a tweet, Mr Limjaroenrat said: “My dear people, I, Pita Limjaroenrat, am ready to become Thailand’s 30th prime minister.

“We have the same dream and hopes and we believe that our beloved Thailand will be better. Change is possible if we start from today. Our dream, our hope is simple, straightforward whether you agree with me or not. I will be our prime minister whether you have voted for me or not. I will serve you.”

Mr Limjaroenrat said he had contacted five other parties with a view to forming a coalition government, and that collectively they commanded 309 seats based on Sunday’s preliminary results.

The Bhumjaithai party secured the third-biggest win, with 68 seats, followed by the Palang Pracharath party, with 39 seats.

Outgoing prime minister Mr Prayuth said on Sunday night that he respected voters’ wishes.

“I will continue to perform my duty to the best of my ability in whatever capacity. And I will continue to serve the nation, religion and the monarchy for the rest of my life,” he was quoted as saying by Thai PBS.

“I have respect for the democratic process and the election results.”

The incumbent had faced criticism for a struggling economy, his handling of the Covid pandemic and the repeal of democratic reforms – a particular sore point with younger voters.

Mr Prayuth had campaigned on a message of continuity after being in charge for nine years. He had warned that a change in government could lead to conflict.

Pheu Thai was tipped to win the polls having won the most votes in every democratic election since 2001, including two landslide victories.

Three of its four governments have been ousted from office.

Both Move Forward and Pheu Thai had centred their campaigns around reforming the military and the monarchy.

However, Move Forward took a more radical and outspoken stance towards these reforms in an appeal to younger voters pushing for change.

Observers said that its victory shows a major shift in Thai politics.

“Pheu Thai fought the wrong war. Pheu Thai fought the populism war that it already won,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University was quoted as saying to Reuters.

“Move Forward takes the game to the next level with institutional reform. That’s the new battleground in Thai politics.

“This is a staggering result. It’s historic.”

According to Saowanee T Alexander, a professor at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand, the results show signs of democratisation.

“This is people saying that we want change ... They are saying that they could no longer take it. The people are very frustrated. They want change, and they could achieve it,” she said to the Associated Press.