Three months after holding an election, Thailand finally has a new prime minister – but he isn’t from  the party that won the vote. Move Forward, the party that came first, is excluded from government. It campaigned on a change agenda, promising to limit royal and military power and introduce economic and social reforms. This was an appealing package to many, but military-appointed senators stopped it forming a government. Instead a party twice deposed in military coups will govern in coalition with military-aligned parties. Many will feel their vote has been ignored. As discontent likely rises, it’s vital that the new government respects people’s right to speak out and protest.

Thailand has a new prime minister. But it isn’t the person who won the election.

On 22 August, Thailand’s parliament voted to make Srettha Thavisin prime minister. He won the parliamentary vote handsomely, securing the support of 482 of 750 members of both chambers of the National Assembly. He’ll lead an 11-party coalition, ending – for the moment – a period of uncertainty that’s lasted since the 14 May general election.

Srettha was the candidate of the Pheu Thai party, a populist party that has historically won support from Thailand’s poorer and rural people on the promise of social welfare programmes. The party is dominated by the economically powerful Shinawatra family, headed by Thaksin Shinawatra, former prime minister and one of Thailand’s richest people, with a reported net worth of US$2.1 billion and a string of corruption allegations.

Pheu Thai had taken a strongly anti-military line. The Thai military has a history of intervention and has twice staged coups against Pheu Thai and its predecessors: in 2006 they ousted Thaksin Shinawatra and in 2014 they forced out his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Ninety people were killed when the military opened fire on pro-Thaksin protesters in 2010. Shortly after the first coup, Thaksin fled into exile and was convicted on corruption charges, while previous versions of the party were shut down by military governments. It’s little surprise that in the 2023 election Pheu Thai once again emphasised its opposition to military involvement in politics.

Pheu Thai won the most seats but lost the popular vote to a military-backed party in the 2019 election, which was widely considered neither free nor fair. The ultimate outcome was that the generals who’d taken over in 2014, having donned civilian suits, stayed in power. This time, however, military-aligned parties were divided and fared incredibly badly. Voters made clear they didn’t want the military running things any longer.

Change thwarted

But there’s a sting in the tail. In 2017 the military rewrote the constitution and had it ratified through a tightly controlled referendum in which no one was allowed to campaign against, so they got away with a new provision stating that a prime minister must win the support of both parliamentary chambers combined. That means the elected House of Representatives and the military-appointed Senate. There are 500 House members and 250 senators, so at least 376 votes are needed. it’s hard to think of any electoral result that wouldn’t leave the decision in the hands of unelected senators.

In the May election, Move Forward came first with 151 seats, ahead of Pheu Thai, which had hoped for a landslide but took 141. Picking up the banner of the Future Forward party that came third in 2019 only to be banned shortly after, Move Forward delivered a shock to the establishment. It channelled the energy of Thailand’s youthful protest movement that has risen up in recent years to call for democratic reform, human rights and curbs on the power of both the military and the country’s influential monarchy, protected from criticism under the notorious lèse majesté law.

The lèse majesté law has been used systematically against people who dare question the wealth and power of the king. Maha Vajiralongkorn, the world’s richest monarch, lives most of his time in Germany but still maintains deep links with the military and controls many businesses. People have been jailed for such offences as wearing a crop top outfit similar to those the king has been pictured sporting, miming along to a song about a king on TikTok and putting a pro-democracy sticker on a poster of the king. Since July 2020, over 250 people, several of them children, have been charged with lèse majesté offences.

Move Forward caught the imagination of many voters by promising reform of the lèse majesté law, closer scrutiny of extravagant royal spending, an end to conscription, cuts to military budgets and greater accountability for the army. The party also promised educational reform, marriage equality and policies to reduce economic inequality.

It was an appealing package to many, but not to the military-appointed senators, many of whom find any hint of monarchical reform detestable; it’s an issue that divides the country, and those who support the military also most fervently back the monarchy.

Move Forward and Pheu Thai quickly formed an alliance and brought in smaller parties to account for around 313 seats. This was still short of the total needed but the parties called on senators to respect the evident desire for change expressed at the ballot box. Civil society backed the call for the democratic outcome to prevail. It didn’t.

The election revealed an appetite among many not for continuity but for radical political and social change – but the dead hand of military influence has reasserted itself.

On 13 July, Move Forward’s leader, Pita Limjaroenat, lost the vote to become prime minister. A handful of senators – 13 – voted for him, more – 34 – voted against, but most simply sat on their hands: 159 senators abstained and 43 didn’t bother turning up, leaving Pita stranded on 324 votes. The clear message of the election was ignored.

A second vote was due on 19 July. But that day Pita was suspended as a member of parliament. This came after the Constitutional Court – which has consistently adopted pro-establishment rulings – accepted a complaint against him alleging he’d broken the rules by owning some undeclared shares in a defunct and delisted media company. It isn’t new for such charges to be brought against political leaders who stand up to the military: Future Forward’s head Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was kicked out of parliament on a similar basis.

Pita denies the accusations, and his suspension wouldn’t have ruled him out. But that same day, the National Assembly voted that it wouldn’t allow a second vote on Pita becoming prime minister.

Trouble ahead?

The big question then became which way Pheu Thai would fall – would it keep taking the side of change or would it compromise for a share of power? The question has now been answered. Srettha’s coalition includes two military-aligned parties. Move Forward, the biggest party in parliament, will watch from the sidelines. There will be no reform of the lèse majesté law.

Much of the political theatre since has focused on the return of Thaksin Shinawatra from exile. He was immediately jailed and then moved to a hospital, although few would be surprised if a pardon followed as part of Pheu Thai’s deal.

But some of Pheu Thai’s voters are less than thrilled. Some see this is a tawdry deal, motivated by mutual self-interest to see off the threat of an upstart party. Some took to social media mocking the speeches Pheu Thai’s leaders had made on the campaign trail ruling out any military deal, and some burned their red shirts, a symbol of party loyalism. People shared images of Pita and ‘#NotMyPM’ trended on Twitter.

Pheu Thai has said the deal is necessary to restore stability, but that isn’t what people voted for. The election revealed an appetite among many not for continuity but for radical political and social change – but the dead hand of military influence has reasserted itself. It’s difficult to see how it wouldn’t, short of constitutional change that replaces the appointed Senate with an elected one.

The new government looks like an uneasy compromise and may well prove fragile. Srettha, a real estate tycoon with no experience of government, will have to learn fast how to handle a military hardened in pollical dogfights.

In these circumstances, when many people feel their votes haven’t been respected, it’s more important than ever to make sure people can express their views and demand change through non-electoral means – including through protest. But the army retains a share in government and its track record is appalling. As well as the killings in 2010, protests demanding democracy in 2020 were met with police violence, harassment, criminalisation and censorship. In these unpromising circumstances, the least Pheu Thai should do is ensure protest rights are respected.


  • Thailand’s new government should ensure that all pending prosecutions under the lèse majesté law are dropped and those jailed for breaching the lèse majesté law are freed.
  • The government should uphold the right to protest and commit to refraining from using violence against or criminalising peaceful protesters.
  • The government should ensure that all laws that govern the formation and operation of civil society organisations are consistent with its obligations under international law and with international best practice.

Cover photo by Jack Taylor/AFP via Getty Images