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Thailand's voters overwhelmingly support opposition parties in elections

Voters wait in a queue to cast their ballot at a polling station during the country's general election in Narathiwat, southern Thailand, on May 14, 2023.
Madaree Tohlala
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AFP via Getty Images
Voters wait in a queue to cast their ballot at a polling station during the country's general election in Narathiwat, southern Thailand, on May 14, 2023.

Updated May 15, 2023 at 2:22 AM ET

In a vote widely seen as a referendum on nine years of military-backed rule that brought the current prime minister and coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha to power in Thailand, unofficial results show the opposition surging toward victory.

With roughly 99% of votes counted, the Pheu Thai party, the latest iteration of the populist political machine of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is projected to have won 141 seats, while the progressive upstart Move Forward Party won 151 — propelled by voters like 38-year-old nurse Tidawan who voted in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen.

"I want a new thing, a new power, and a new way," said Tidawan, who didn't want to give her last name. "Under the military, nothing is going to change."

That idea was echoed by 25-year-old Wachiraporn Taweemaneekot, who cast her vote for Move Forward in the capital, Bangkok.

"I just wanted to see something new, something better," she said at a polling station near the center of the city. "Now we need a new thing to bring us into the future. To bring us forward."

Move Forward ran on a platform of "the three Ds," its charismatic, Harvard University-educated candidate for prime minister told NPR: "Demilitarize, demonopolize and decentralize — that's how you democratize Thailand. That's the endgame," Pita Limjaroenrat said. "Take military out of politics so that we don't have military coup every seven years on average."

Move Forward has also championed marriage equality and an end to military conscription, two issues that resonate with younger voters, as well as its more controversial call for amendments to the controversial Lese Majeste laws that prohibit any criticism of the Thai monarchy.

That law stipulates prison terms of between 3 and 15 years for those convicted. Several hundred people have been charged under the law in the past few years, many following protests that followed the dissolution of Move Forward's predecessor, Future Forward, following its surprisingly strong third place finish in 2019 as a first time contender.

Roughly 52 million Thais were eligible to vote in this election and turnout was thought to be high, as military-linked parties struggling to convince voters they should stay in power after nearly a decade of slow economic growth and a crackdown on pro-democracy activists in the past several years.

The party of the prime minister was on pace for a sixth place finish, according to initial projections.

The opposition's strong showing doesn't guarantee a path to power

Though no major problems were reported during today's voting, Human Rights Watch has called the elections "fundamentally flawed," occurring within the framework of a 2017 constitution written by a commission appointed by the military following its 2014 coup.

That means a royalist, military-backed government could still return to power if they retain the backing of the 250-member, military appointed Senate. The prime minister is chosen by a simple majority of a vote by the house and the senate, meaning the royalist, military establishment could return to power with just 126 House seats.

And there are other tools at the establishment's disposal. In the past two decades, it has staged two coups while Thailand's courts have brought down three opposition prime ministers and dissolved several opposition parties. Political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University says the threat of dissolution looms large over this election, too.

"Something will happen, most likely, because how could the conservative royalist establishment put up with the kind of agenda that Move Forward offers and peddles, and calls for change, and reform of the military and the monarchy?" Thitinan says. "You have to imagine a lot of Thais, powerful Thais, elites, they have a lot of stakes in the system that were set up over the last seven decades ... they bought into the system. And Move Forward is a direct challenge."

Paetongtarn Shinawatra and Srettha Thavisin, Thailand's Prime Ministerial Candidates for the Pheu Thai party, at party headquarters at the end of election day on May 14 in Bangkok, Thailand.
Lauren DeCicca / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Paetongtarn Shinawatra and Srettha Thavisin, Thailand's Prime Ministerial Candidates for the Pheu Thai party, at party headquarters at the end of election day on May 14 in Bangkok, Thailand.

As is Pheu Thai, a generational thorn in the military's side, with the specter of the establishment's arch nemesis, Thaksin Shinawatra, hanging over it. His daughter — Paetongtarn Shinawatra — is one of the party's candidates for prime minister.

Her father and her aunt remain in exile after being deposed by the military on allegations of corruption. Though Thaksin hinted recently that he wished to return this summer to see his new grandson, who Paetongtarn gave birth to earlier this month.

Official results aren't expected for weeks, with a new parliament and a new prime minister to be named by July.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.