Thailand’s electorate backed radical reform in its 14 May election, with the Move Forward Party (MFP) ~ a youth-oriented party advocating wholesale changes to the nation’s bureaucracy, economy, military, and monarchy ~ emerging as the single largest. The election result comes at a time the country is pursuing plans to move from a heavy-industrybased economy to one geared towards innovation, or Thailand 4.0. What the new government will mean for these plans is the key; but it is increasingly clear that military rule is most likely over, and reformist ideas will increasingly shape public policy and debate. In that sense, the recent election could become the most consequential political event in the country since the mid-1970s, when a pro-democracy movement first toppled the ruling military regime.
The poll also marked a setback for Pheu Thai, the populist party affiliated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which came in second. Though parliamentary procedures mean it will be a while before a new administration assumes power, the MFP’s proposals for structural reform have already set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. The party will also face resistance in getting the new parliament to endorse its leadership. Led by Harvard and MIT-educated Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, the MFP’s radical ~ in the Thai context ~ plans to curb the powers of unelected state institutions including the military, put defence budgets to scrutiny in a transparent manner, do away with conscription, reform the judicial system, and decentralise economic decision-making are ambitious. The MFP has also promised to raise wages and substantially expand social welfare measures which would cumulatively cost anywhere between three and four per cent of the country’s GDP.
The party has been explicit that it would fund these efforts by raising taxes on corporations and on the wealthy, many of whom pay next to nothing in personal income tax. It won’t be easy, to put it mildly. The MFP, while it does seem to have captured the popular narrative, does not have a resounding mandate by any stretch of the imagination ~ with 152 of the 500 seats in the Lower House of Parliament, it has just 11 seats more than Pheu Thai with 141. Yes, the reformist party swept Bangkok, winning 32 of the Thai capital’s 33 districts and losing one by only four votes. It also made some inroads into Pheu Thai’s northern stronghold by winning most of the seats in the region’s three largest provinces. But it is some away from being a pan-Thailand political force. The election outcome could also have important geopolitical implications.
As veteran Thailand-watcher Scott Christensen points out, Thailand is the only functioning multiparty democracy in Indo China, a sub-region dominated by autocrats and one-party states that is increasingly under the influence of the People’s Republic of China. Against this backdrop, the incoming administration will have the backing of the USA. But the danger lies in overestimating the scale of the anti-authoritarian sentiment which the recent election has brought to the fore. If the MFP is perceived merely as a derivative political platform of the liberal Western kind with its mass appeal confined to urban centres, it may turn out to be a poisoned chalice