Thai Election Look-Ahead: How the Kingdom’s Foreign Policy May Change
Thailand is set to hold general elections on May 14, its first since 2019. The country has been under military rule since 2014 when a coup deposed the democratically elected government led by the current opposition Pheu Thai party. Although coups are regarded as “business as usual” in Thailand—there have been 19 coups since 1932—and usually do not significantly impact the business environment, almost a decade of quasi-military rule has slowed the country’s growth momentum and diminished its regional status. The economy contracted in the last quarter of 2022 and GDP is expected to grow by a modest 3.8 percent this year, far behind Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Despite Bangkok’s successful hosting of APEC last year, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has also been much less active abroad than his regional counterparts.
Although Parliament was formally dissolved on March 20, political maneuvering and campaigning has been ongoing for the past few months. In January, Prayuth joined the newly formed United Thai Nation (UTN, or Ruam Thai Sang Chart in Thai) Party to run for reelection, pitting him against ally and Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) leader, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. All members of the Senate are appointed by the military, which usually gives pro-military parties more leverage in forming a ruling coalition. However, the split between Prayuth and Prawit and the presence of other conservative PM candidates could divide the Senate vote this time around. Pheu Thai has set its sights on a landslide victory, aiming to win up to 310 seats out of 500 in the House of Representatives; 376 votes are needed to elect a prime minister. Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of former prime minister Thaksin, is one of the party’s three prime ministerial candidates. The nascent Move Forward Party (MFP), led by Pita Limjaroenrat, is likely to join a coalition government led by Pheu Thai and has made clear it will not form a government with PPRP or UTN. Other parties that are unlikely to win a majority but will play a key role in forming the ruling coalition are the Bhumjaithai Party, led by Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, and the Democrat Party, led by Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit.
Like in many other countries, Thai elections are usually won on domestic issues, and this has been reflected in parties’ campaign platforms, many of which have promised to raise the minimum wage, increase social welfare, and improve infrastructure conditions. Under Prayuth, foreign policy has not been the government’s priority, but this article aims to examine how Thailand’s stance toward major global and regional issues may change depending on which party comes to power in May.
If PPRP or UTN leads the ruling coalition, Thailand’s position toward the ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is unlikely to change. Prayuth has been frustratingly complicit in the Burmese junta’s atrocities by continuing to maintain diplomatic ties with the junta-led government, due to the historic brotherly relationship between the two countries’ militaries. Despite a de facto ban on Burmese junta representatives at Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings, Thailand has invited Myanmar to attend multiple ASEAN-related meetings hosted in Bangkok, including one in December that was boycotted by four maritime Southeast Asian countries, and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus working group on maritime security in February. Since the coup, more than 1,000 Myanmar refugees who have been approved for resettlement to third countries have been unable to leave Thailand because the government has not issued exit permits for more than a year. Thailand’s special envoy for Myanmar has even gone as far as to criticize international sanctions against the junta. Sympathies and mutual origins shared by Thailand’s top generals, now leaders of PPRP and UTN, will likely prolong Thailand’s effort to socialize the Burmese junta into the international community and prevent them from applying humanitarian and democratizing pressures on Myanmar if a military-backed party remains in power.
If Pheu Thai leads the ruling coalition, Thailand is more likely to adopt a clearer message against the junta’s atrocities, but how far that might go depends on whether Move Forward is part of the coalition. Although both parties released statements in 2021 condemning the coup, MFP called for the inclusion of all stakeholders, including the National League for Democracy and ethnic armed organizations, at ASEAN-led negotiations and special summits. Myanmar refugees and migrants living in Thailand have also expressed hope that a new government will adopt a less accommodating stance to Myanmar’s military, indicating that any change is likely to be an improvement to Prayuth’s full embrace of Min Aung Hlaing’s junta.
On navigating great power competition
Similar to, and perhaps more so than, other Southeast Asian countries, as one of the few countries in the world that has never been colonized, Thailand practices “bamboo diplomacy” and has avoided overtly choosing sides between the United States and China. However, almost nine years under Prayuth has caused Thailand to “disappear from the world stage,” in the words of Pheu Thai senior advisor and PM candidate Srettha Thavisin. Although Thailand often touts itself as the United States’ oldest ally in Asia, bilateral relations have undeniably stagnated in the past decade since the last coup as strategic interests have diverged. While Washington’s relationships with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia have improved holistically across multiple areas, the best it seems to be able to do with Thailand is to continue holding the annual Cobra Gold military exercises. Thailand’s growing defense ties with China have also been cause for concern.
In contrast, leaders from Pheu Thai and MFP have shown a more nuanced understanding of navigating great power competition in the current geopolitical climate and have promised to improve Thailand’s global profile if elected. In an interview with Thai media in January, Pita said that international relations was less about choosing sides than choosing principles, because “the new world order is no world order.” Raising Singapore as an example, the MFP leader stressed that it was important for smaller and medium-sized states to stand by their principles to have more credibility and be viewed as a trusted partner in global affairs. Srettha has also said that if a Pheu Thai government came to power, he would support more trips abroad by leaders to attract foreign investment. Having leaders like Pita (a graduate of MIT and the Harvard Kennedy School and former executive director of Grab Thailand) or Srettha (a real estate executive with an MBA from Claremont Graduate University and Thai CEOs’ top pick to be prime minister) in a new government would undoubtedly be a change for Thailand and potentially allow for greater bilateral cooperation on issues like human rights, climate change, and combating Chinese crime syndicates operating out of Thailand.
Beyond geopolitics, Thailand’s stance in U.S.-China relations could also have implications for the country’s digital economy. PPRP, Pheu Thai, and MFP have all promised to invest in Thailand’s 5G infrastructure, promote digital and tech adoption in the government, and help small and medium enterprises take advantage of the digital economy. Under Prayuth, Thailand has seen a growing relationship with China’s Huawei Technologies, which has established itself as a major supporter of the administration’s flagship Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) project, having opened two data centers in the EEC and agreed to train Thailand’s digital workforce. Although it is still unclear what opposition parties’ stances toward cybersecurity and data protection are, a change in leadership could present a renewed opportunity for the United States to engage with Thailand on issues related to 5G and digital governance.
On maritime security
As economic issues have taken center stage in campaigning, pledges to foster and revive domestic industries have been a driver behind many parties’ election promises, with fisheries being a particular focus. In 2019, the European Union delisted Thailand from its group of “warned countries” for illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing to recognize Thailand’s progress in fisheries governance. According to Pheu Thai and Move Forward, this progress came at a high cost for Thailand’s fishing industry, which suffered a loss of roughly $127 million in annual export revenue from Prayuth’s excessively prohibitive approach to regulations. Civil society organizations called out redundant regulations on vessel tracking requirements, capital requirements for high seas fishing, and a lack of compensation for vessels affected by the regulations.
Both Pheu Thai and MFP are keen to relax licensing requirements for small-scale local fishing, revive fishery activities in sovereign waters, and renegotiate IUU measures with the EU according to UN standards. Conversely, the Democrat Party, which will likely join a UTN-PPRP coalition, has been vocal about rebuilding Thailand’s tuna fishing fleet, a move that MFP says will not help local fishermen. Regardless, the potential revival of Thailand’s fishing industry, the world’s largest three decades earlier, generates concerns about the dwindling fishing stock in Southeast Asia, where IUU fishing is still rampant. However, this maritime outlook might make Thailand a more active player in the subregion’s maritime security landscape through closer fisheries management with neighboring countries, several of whom are claimants to territory in the South China Sea.
Time for change?
Speculation is still rampant on Thailand’s election forecast. Party switching, factional politics, a potential split vote in the Senate, and a new law favoring larger parties in the House of Representatives make it difficult to predict the final breakdown of Parliament seats. Although Paetongtarn Shinawatra leads the most recent opinion polls in popularity over Prayuth, animosity toward Pheu Thai from pro-military and pro-monarchy forces is strong and there could be a repeat of 2019, when the party won a majority of seats in the House but was unable to form a government. Activists also say that the election date’s postponement from May 7 to May 14 is an attempt to suppress the progressive youth vote, since it coincides with university exams. Domestic policies may be the focus for now, but a new government presents a chance for Thailand to reorient its foreign policy priorities to be more modern, relevant, and capable of adapting to global challenges.
Arin Chinnasathian is a former research intern with the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Karen Lee is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.