[Al Jazeera] Thailand’s reformist opposition has won the most seats and the largest share of the popular vote in a general election after voters resoundingly rejected the military-backed parties that have ruled the Southeast Asian country for nearly a decade.
With nearly all votes counted on Monday, the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) and the populist Pheu Thai Party were projected to win about 286 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives.
But uncertainty remains about whether they would be able to form the next government due to skewed parliamentary rules that allow 250 members of a military-appointed Senate to vote on the prime minister.
That means MFP and Pheu Thai will need the support of smaller parties to establish a new administration.
The biggest winner of Sunday’s vote was MFP, a progressive youth-led party that contested the general elections for the first time on a bold platform of reforming the monarchy and reducing the power of the military by rewriting the country’s constitution and ending conscription.
With 99 percent of votes counted, the MFP looked set to take the biggest share of the lower house with a total of 147 seats, preliminary results published on the election commission website showed. The figure includes 112 from the 400 seats that are directly elected and 35 from the 100 seats allocated to parties on a proportional basis.
Analysts described the outcome for MFP as “outstanding” as pre-election surveys had predicted that it would be Pheu Thai, which has won every election since 2001 and is linked to the billionaire Shinawatra family, that would take the lion’s share.
The latest results showed Pheu Thai winning a total of 138 seats — 112 directly elected and 27 from the party list.
The royalist-military parties fared poorly.
The United Thai Nation Party of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power as army chief in a 2014 coup, was trailing in fifth with 36 seats. His former party, the Palang Pracharath, was fourth with about 40 seats.
Coming in third was Bhumjaithai Party, which spearheaded the campaign to legalise cannabis in Thailand. Part of the current ruling coalition, Bhumjaithai was projected to win about 70 seats.
“The result is a very impressive victory for the Move Forward Party,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, professor of political science at the Ubon Ratchathani University in eastern Thailand.
“It marks a big turning point for Thailand because it indicates most people in the country want change,” he told Al Jazeera. “We are really seeing the power of the electorate, who fought hard this time for change.”
Indeed, on voting day on Sunday, Thais – young and old alike – turned up in huge numbers to cast their ballots, with many in the capital saying they were voting for change. By midday, officials at several polling stations in Bangkok said more than half of those eligible had braved the sweltering heat to cast their ballots.
That included 60-year-old Mallika Sriboonreung, who told Al Jazeera she was feeling “excited” to vote this year. All of her family and most of her neighbours had already cast their votes, she said. “I came to vote because I wish for a better person to run the country,” she added.
Across Thailand, voting proceeded smoothly with long and orderly queues observed at the beginning of the day in the northern city of Chiang Mai, the eastern resort city of Pattaya and the western tourist island of Phuket.
In all of those areas, MFP swept the polls.
In Bangkok, it is poised to win all but one of the city’s 33 constituencies.
In Chiang Mai province, the second-most populous region and long-considered a Pheu-Thai stronghold, it looked set to take seven out of the 10 seats. In Pattaya, too, it will likely take seven out of the 10 seats up for grabs.
And in Phuket, it was projected to take all three seats up for election.
The mood at the MFP’s campaign headquarters was electric late on Sunday, when the results began rolling in. “Before the election, I was hoping we would get about 100 seats,” said Phisit Krairot, a 33-year-old engineer. “But the real-time updates I am seeing today exceeds my expectations.”
MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat arrived at the campaign headquarters to cheers and thanked supporters for a “sensational result”. He later wrote on Twitter, “It is now clear that Move Forward has gained the immense trust of the people and of the country.”
MFP candidates were jubilant.
“I’m surprised that MFP will be the leading party to form the government,” said Piyarat “Toto” Chongthep, who won in Bangkok’s Bang-Na district.
The 28-year-old activist was at the forefront of a youth-led protest movement in 2020 that broke long-held taboos by calling for curbs on the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
“For the party, it’s more than we could have imagined,” said Piyarat, who is one of several protest leaders who ran for parliament under the MFP banner. “I really cannot explain the feeling right now.”
Across the city at the Pheu Thai headquarters, leader Paetongtarn Shinawatra congratulated MFP late on Sunday and said the party with the most votes should get to take the lead in forming the next government.
“We are ready to talk to Move Forward, but we are waiting for the official result,” she said.
“I’m happy for them,” she added. “We can work together.”
A glum-looking Prayuth meanwhile had little to say.
The incumbent prime minister reportedly slipped away from his campaign headquarters quietly after telling the media that he respected democracy.
The Election Commission now has 60 days to certify the election results.
Despite the MFP’s strong showing, analysts say it faces an uphill battle for Bangkok’s Government House. That is because any winning candidate will need 376 votes across the House of Representatives and the Senate to become prime minister.
“At this point, whether or not the Senate would be willing to respect Move Forward’s mandate is still unclear,” Ken Mathis Lohatepanont, a political analyst, wrote in the Thai Enquirer newspaper.
In the last election in 2019, the Senate voted unanimously for Prayuth despite his party winning a lot fewer seats than Pheu Thai. The prime minister was later able to cobble together a coalition of 19 different parties that kept him in office for four years.
With MFP, the main sticking points for the military-appointed chamber are the party’s promises to reform the monarchy and the armed forces, including amending Thailand’s strict lese-majeste laws. The vaguely-worded Article 112 carries a penalty of up to 15 years in jail and rights groups say it has been used to punish political activism.
If the Senate opposes MFP, it will need the support of Pheu Thai and other smaller parties, such as Bhumjaithai, led by incumbent Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul.
This means it could take weeks for Thai voters before they find out what their new government could look like.
“Despite Move Forward’s triumph at the polls, Thailand is likely in for an extended period of uncertainty,” Lohatepanont wrote.