Voters have overwhelmingly backed change in Thailand’s 14 May election, signalling a clear rejection of military power. The biggest winner is Move Forward, which embraced the energy and demands of a youthful protest movement to come a surprise first. The party promises to curb military power and, for the first time in Thailand’s political history, confront royal influence. It’s quickly put together a coalition but still faces huge barriers against assuming power, particularly in the form of a military-appointed Senate whose support it needs. The military must recognise that voters have spoken and any attempt to stop the tide of democracy would be short-lived and come at an unacceptable cost.

Thailand’s voters have spoken. In the 14 May general election, they overwhelmingly backed change. While it will take several weeks for official results to be confirmed, according to provisional results two major opposition parties won 293 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives, parliament’s lower house.

The party that unexpectedly came first, Move Forward, quickly announced it had formed a coalition with the runner-up, Pheu Thai, and six others, accounting for 313 seats. So if democracy is respected, when parliament next meets – expected in late July – the Move Forward-headed coalition should become the government and its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, Thailand’s prime minister.

But there’s a problem: Thailand’s powerful military. Over the past century, Thailand has had 13 military coups. The last two, in 2006 and 2014, forced out governments run by Pheu Thai and its forerunners. At the last election in 2019, widely considered neither free nor fair, junta head General Prayut Chan-o-cha swapped his military uniform for a civilian suit and held onto power.

But this time, military-aligned parties fared incredibly badly. Voters made it abundantly clear they don’t want the military in power. Now Thailand stands at a fork in the road: will a new, democratically elected government be allowed to take power? Or, as it has before, will the military intervene to stop it happening?

A biased system

There’s a powerful tool at the military’s disposal. Under the new constitution it introduced in 2017, ratified through a tightly controlled referendum in which campaigning against was banned, the prime minister needs to win the approval of a majority vote of the combined House of Representatives and Senate, parliament’s second chamber. The Senate has 250 members – and they were all appointed by the military.

This means 376 votes are needed across the two houses, leaving the new coalition short. The military minority might still be able to retain its grip, using its Senate votes to disregard the reality of its lack of support.

The military should accept that the political landscape has completely changed. It must stop trying to hold back the tide.

The appetite for renewal Move Forward spoke to has been expressed on the streets for years – despite a government response that unleashed violence and criminalised protesters. Young people have been at the forefront of protests, demanding democracy and human rights, military reform and – challenging a long-held social taboo – stronger limits on the monarchy’s power.

Royal reform has historically been kept off the political agenda. In part this was because the previous king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, reigned for over 70 years and was broadly respected. But his successor, Maha Vajiralongkorn, can’t command anything like that respect. Despite being a billionaire playboy who spends much of his time in Germany, the king expects a bigger say in government, and the military has been happy to comply. He insisted that clauses to protect royal power be included in the 2017 constitution and in 2019 took control of two army regiments. One of his first acts on taking the throne was to assume direct control of the crown property bureau, which has a reported value of US$40 billion, while the royal family also enjoys extensive property and business interests.

But Vajiralongkorn is buttressed from criticism by Thailand’s notorious lèse majesté law, which makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the monarch, with long jail sentences as punishment. The government has used this law extensively since protests began to demand curbs on royal power. At least 242 people have been charged with lèse majesté offences since 2020 and many remain in pretrial detention. Altogether over 1,800 people are estimated to have been detained under Thailand’s suite of repressive laws, with hundreds of child protesters criminalised.

Spotlight on political parties

Move Forward directly reflects the concerns of the youthful protest movement, with protest leaders among its candidates and activists. Its proposals include reform of the lèse majesté law and closer scrutiny of royal spending. It wants to ‘demilitarise’ Thailand, including by scrapping military conscription, cutting military budgets and making the army more accountable and transparent. It also says it wants to challenge economic inequality, reform the education curriculum and introduce same-sex marriage.

These are ideas that break new ground in Thai politics, and many of the electoral roll’s three million new voters embraced them. Move Forward compensated for its lack of resources through intensive social media use – in one trend, people shared footage of themselves taking big steps forward – and by encouraging its young supporters to engage with their older family members. Through such means, Move Forward went beyond the youth vote: it won almost every seat in the capital, Bangkok, traditionally held by pro-military and pro-royal parties, and also performed well in areas that usually back Pheu Thai.

Runner-up Pheu Thai is a more established force, dominated by the economically powerful Shinawatra family: its most prominent figure in the election was Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in the 2006 military coup, and niece of Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister forced out in 2014. As is evident, the Shinawatra family has long been at odds with the military. The party is populist in its orientation, winning support from poorer people and promising social welfare programmes, but its politicians have also faced numerous corruption allegations.

Both parties have relatively youthful figureheads – Limjaroenrat is a 42-year-old and Paetongtarn Shinawatra is 36 – offering a sharp contrast with the old military order, represented by 69-year-old Prayut. But beyond that, it isn’t the most natural of alliances, with the two brought together more by what they oppose than anything else. Pheu Thai has said it has no plans to change the lèse majesté law.

Having expected to win the election, Pheu Thai may now face the temptation of cutting some other deal that excludes Move Forward – although an alliance with pro-military parties would anger many of its supporters. Even if the two stick together, they might have to come to an arrangement with some pro-military parties, notably Bhumjaithi, which came third with a potentially pivotal 70 seats. But Move Forward ruled out any deals with parties involved in the current government, while Bhumjaithi has made clear its opposition to any lèse majesté law changes. The cost of compromise would likely involve dropping this along with commitments to military reform, disappointing voters who invested their hopes in change and confirming continuing military and monarchical influence.

Pro-military parties split ahead of the election: Prayuth broke away from the Palang Pracharath party, which lost 75 seats, standing instead for the new United Thai Nation party, which picked up 36 seats. But pro-military parties can be expected to put their differences to one side if they see a Move Forward-led government as offering a serious threat to the army’s power.

Time for democracy

Beyond the Senate, there are other challenges ahead. The military establishment dominates supposedly independent institutions such as the electoral commission and constitutional court.

Both Move Forward and Pheu Thai may face attempts to close them down. There’s quite a history of parties that oppose the military being dissolved for alleged breaches of laws. Pheu Thai is the third version of a Shinawatra family-led party, while Move Forward is the successor to Future Forward, which picked up support from many young voters to finish third in the flawed 2019 election only to be dissolved and have many of its leaders banned from politics on grounds of breaking funding rules. Already a complaint has been filed against Limjaroenrat, claiming he holds undisclosed shares in a media company, a charge he denies. Complaints have also been filed against Pheu Thai.

But the military should accept that the political landscape has completely changed. It must stop trying to hold back the tide, whether by parliamentary manoeuvrings, abuses of the law or an outright coup. It can’t keep denying the democratic will of a clear majority of Thai people, because this risks turning Thailand into another Myanmar, where the military can only retain power through the ultimately self-defeating exercise of ever-increasing brutality.

Instead, Thailand has the opportunity to offer a shining regional example by going the other way. It’s time for the military to understand this and act accordingly.


  • All parties must commit to respecting the results of the election and recognise Move Forward and Pheu Thai’s mandate to form a government.
  • The military must categorically rule out any prospect of a coup.
  • The new government must drop all criminal cases against protesters and repeal restrictive laws, including the lèse majesté law.

Cover photo by Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images