2023 Thai Election Results: An Opposition Win but Unclear Path Ahead

On May 14, almost 40 million Thai voters—the most ever—headed to the polls for the first national elections since 2019. Initial results show that the opposition Move Forward and Pheu Thai parties won by a significant margin over their conservative and military-backed counterparts. The Move Forward Party stunned by winning the largest share of seats, as preelection polling had predicted a win by the Pheu Thai Party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. If the two opposition parties can manage to form a coalition government, Pheu Thai will now serve as junior partner. The Election Commission has 60 days to officially endorse the results, at which point a prime minister will be chosen. Move Forward clearly received a popular mandate, but that does not necessarily mean it will get to govern.

Q1: How does Thailand’s electoral system work?

A1: Thailand’s parliament is made up of 500 legislators in the lower house and 250 appointed senators in the upper house. Voters received two ballots for the lower house: one constituency vote to select 400 district representatives, and one vote to select 100 party-list representatives on the national level via proportional representation. The prime minister is selected by a combined vote of both houses, meaning that a candidate must receive at least 376 total votes. This gives the pro-establishment parties a major advantage, as they can likely count on the support of the 250 military-appointed senators and only need to win 126 seats in the popularly elected lower house to take power. In 2019, for example, the unelected Senate played a key role in reelecting coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister even though his Palang Pracharath Party only won 116 seats compared to Pheu Thai’s 136.

Q2: Who were the major parties and their candidates?

A2: Incumbent prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ran under the United Thai Nation Party, a relatively new party formed in 2021 to engineer his reelection. Although Prayuth’s government withstood the Covid-19 pandemic, pro-democracy protests in 2020, and factional infighting, Thailand’s post-Covid-19 recovery has been the slowest in Southeast Asia and the country has attracted less investment in the last decade compared to its regional competitors. The other military-backed party in the race was the Palang Pracharath Party, which had nominated Prayuth in the 2019 elections but split with the premier this time. The party’s current leader and prime ministerial candidate is instead Prayuth’s deputy, 77-year-old former general Prawit Wongsuwan.

The Pheu Thai Party is led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of Thaksin Shinawatra and niece of Yingluck Shinawatra, both former prime ministers. Until Sunday’s results, Pheu Thai or its previous incarnation, Thai Rak Thai, had won every popular election since 2001. The party led in most preelection polls, though in the final week of the race the Move Forward Party closed the gap and its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, pulled ahead of Paetongtarn as the favored prime ministerial candidate.

Move Forward was formed in 2020 as the successor to the Future Forward Party, which the courts dissolved following a stronger-than-expected showing in the 2019 elections. That dissolution kicked off significant and long-lasting street protests in 2020 and 2021. Move Forward has remained extremely popular among students and younger voters, especially in Bangkok.

Another significant party is the Bhumjaithai Party, led by Health Minister Anutin Charnvirarkul. Bhumjaithai is a conservative party often referred to as a political kingmaker, as it has traditionally positioned itself as able to work with both pro-military and pro-democracy coalitions.

Q3: What were the election results?

A3: Move Forward outperformed expectations, sweeping a total of 152 seats to become the largest party in parliament. It won an astounding 32 of the 33 seats in Bangkok but also expanded its appeal well beyond the capital. It won seats across the country, including in Chiang Mai, the home constituency of the Shinawatra family and traditionally a Pheu Thai stronghold. Move Forward’s platform appealed to millennial and Gen Z voters, who make up almost half of the electorate, but early results show they drew support across all demographics.

Pheu Thai came in second place with 141 seats. Leading up to the election, leaders had broadcast their intention to win a “landslide” of at least 310 seats, but rumors of a Pheu Thai alliance with Palang Pracharat may have cost them much of the pro-democracy youth vote. A week before the elections, former prime minister Thaksin also tweeted his intention to return to Thailand in July, which could have caused anti-Thaksin swing voters to turn away from Pheu Thai. Bhumjaithai came in third with 70 seats, outperforming its 2019 count of 51 seats.

The military parties performed comparatively poorly, with Palang Pracharat winning 40 seats—less than half the number it won in 2019—and Prayuth’s new United Thai Nation winning just 36. The Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest party, continued its slide into irrelevance, picking up just 25 seats. These results suggest that, however the messy coalition politics of the next two months play out, Prayuth’s political career is likely over.

Q4: What happens next?

A4: Thailand will likely not select a prime minister until July, when the Election Commission must certify the results of the vote. A day after the elections, Move Forward’s Pita announced a six-party coalition with Pheu Thai and four minor parties totaling 310 seats. Pita appears to be hoping that at least 66 junta-appointed senators will choose to recognize the will of the voters and help him reach the 376-vote threshold. Pita has also called on the elected members of other parties to support him even though they have not been invited into the coalition. The easiest path to 376 would be to invite Bhumjaithai into a coalition, but it seems neither side is ready for that yet. Move Forward has positioned itself as a reformist party, promising to draft a new constitution, abolish mandatory military conscription, and most controversially, amend Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code, which prohibits criticism of Thailand’s monarchy. Bhumajaithai and most of the Senate seem unwilling to accept that last point and Move Forward so far has not indicated it will compromise.

The Move Forward-Pheu Thai coalition may find a way to bridge these differences and form a government, but several other scenarios are possible. Pheu Thai could break ranks and broker a deal with Bhumjaithai, the military backed parties, and the Senate to put Paetongtarn in power. Or Bhumjaithai, the military-backed parties, and the Senate could ignore both Move Forward and Pheu Thai to establish a minority government. Such a government would likely fall immediately to a no confidence vote, throwing the country into political chaos.

And then there are the extralegal means. The Senate could abstain from voting and refuse to confirm Pita, leading to a stalemate. The courts could find ways to nullify enough Move Forward and Pheu Thai victories to alter the balance of power, or could disqualify the parties entirely, as it did to Future Forward in 2020. Less than a week before the elections, a Palang Pracharath candidate accused Pita of violating election rules by holding shares in a now-defunct media company and urged the Electoral Commission to disqualify him. If the new parliament is unable to elect a prime minister, or if the thwarting of the popular vote leads to street protests, the military also holds the trump card: it could stage yet another of Thailand’s long series of coups.

Another unknown factor is the role of the king. In the past, the monarchy under widely respected Bhumibol Adulyadej had stepped in to endorse coups and prevent bloodshed, but the current king has been much less involved in domestic politics and there is no credible information on how he feels toward Move Forward, Pheu Thai, or the military-backed parties.

Q5: What does this mean for the U.S.-Thai alliance?

A5: No matter how things shake out over the next few months, the military and conservatives in the palace will play a major role in the next Thai government. They may do so as direct participants or simply by holding the sword of Damocles over Move Forward and Pheu Thai, forcing them to temper their plans for reform or risk another coup. Assuming there is no military or judicial coup, the U.S.-Thai alliance will remain functionally unchanged. Cooperation on training, law enforcement, cybersecurity, and myriad other fronts will continue. If Thailand eventually does enter another cycle of political violence, it will severely constrain U.S.-Thai military cooperation, at least in the short term, as it did after the 2014 coup.

But at the strategic level, the United States will find it much easier to work with a democratically elected Thai government. The two sides would be able to repair some of the lingering distrust of the last decade under Prayuth’s rule. And while Thailand would still be unlikely to overtly align with the United States on many of the issues involving competition with China, it would likely moderate the increasingly close embrace of Beijing and distrust of Washington pushed by the current government.

There is little in the way of public polling on Thai opinions about China and the United States (elite polls tend to only sample those in the conservative political establishment) and foreign policy played little role in the election campaign, so Move Forward has not staked out much of a position on most issues. But there is reason to believe most of its supporters and parliamentarians would lean pro-American, or at least be skeptical of China, because of their previous support for the Milk Tea Alliance—an online network of pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and beyond.

In his first press conference after the elections, Pita recognized Thailand’s role in making sure Myanmar adheres to the ASEAN-brokered Five-Point Consensus peace plan, which Myanmar’s military has wholly ignored since its establishment in 2021, and said one of his priorities would be establishing a humanitarian corridor between Thailand and Myanmar and aiding the implementation of the United States’ BURMA Act. A Move Forward-Pheu Thai government is also likely to align much more closely with the United States on Ukraine—a position that Pheu Thai at least has already taken by condemning the Russian invasion in much stronger terms than Prayuth’s government had.

All of this depends on what happens behind closed doors in Bangkok over the next 60 days and beyond. Thailand’s political system is at a tipping point and there is no telling which way it will fall.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Karen Lee is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

Karen Lee

Karen Lee

Former Research Associate, Southeast Asia Program
Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative