Despite not winning Thailand’s most recent election in May 2023, Srettha Thavisin of the Pheu Thai Party (PTP) became the nation’s prime minister in August. How could someone lose at the ballot box yet still become the leader of their country? Examining Thavisin’s rise to power shows that Thailand is still best characterized as a competitive autocracy, dashing hopes that the 2023 election would mark the country’s transition back to a real democracy.
This year’s election in Thailand pitted the conservative military-aligned government, helmed by former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, against the anti-military opposition. Chan-o-cha had governed the country since he led a coup against an elected civilian government in 2014.
Nine years later, the people were yearning for change. Years of political repression and economic malaise at the hands of the generals-turned-politicians led many Thais to become disillusioned with the status quo. As a result, popular support soared for the two main opposition parties: the populist PTP and the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP).
The PTP is a familiar fixture on the Thai political landscape. It was the party whose government was overthrown in 2014, and its previous political incarnations also governed Thailand from 2001-2006 until it was toppled in another military coup. The PTP’s populist platform made it immensely popular among rural Thais, with the party winning every election held since 2001. Expectations were no different leading up to the 2023 race; political analysts busied themselves not with questions about who would win, but how much the PTP would win by.
The MFP had previously shaken up Thai politics by placing third in the 2019 election on a pro-democracy, anti-military, and reformist platform. The party is also intensely controversial among conservatives because of its support for abolishing a law that criminalizes insulting the Thai monarchy. Those in favor of the law say it maintains the sanctified image of the monarch, but critics argue the statute is weaponized to suppress free speech because it can be broadly interpreted by those in power to target anti-government actors.
The 2023 Election
The election results were nothing short of seismic. The MFP placed first against all expectations, winning 38% of the popular vote. The PTP came second with 28% of the vote. The two parties collectively won 292 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives, enough for a comfortable parliamentary majority. In contrast, pro-military parties won just 20% of the votes.
The MFP’s upset win showed Thai people’s appetite for a change from the military-dominated regime in favor of institutional reforms and a more representative democracy. Additionally, the party and its supporters broke the long-held taboo of discussing the monarchy in politics, showing that a sizable chunk of the public was interested in bringing the institution into the public sphere.
In any other democracy, the MFP would have been able to elect its leader Pita Limjaroenrat as prime minister with the support of the PTP. Sadly, that is not what happened.
According to Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsberg, authoritarians can use constitutional amendments to subvert democracy and entrench their power. The Thai military establishment took this concept further by drafting an entirely new charter in 2017 to tilt “the electoral playing field in favor of incumbents,” a strategy Nancy Bermeo also describes as a form of democratic backsliding.
Thailand’s parliament is composed of the 500-member House and the 250-member Senate. Under the 2017 constitution, the Senate is not elected but appointed by the generals. This gives military-aligned politicians an institutional advantage in choosing the country’s leader, as the same charter also grants senators the right to vote for prime minister.
After the 2023 election, the constitution worked as intended. The MFP formed a 313-member strong coalition in the House, but it needed 375 votes to confirm Limjaroenrat’s premiership. He needed the support of at least 62 senators to reach that magic number. Out of 250 ostensibly nonpartisan senators, only 13 voted in favor. 193 abstained or voted against him, and 43 did not even bother to show up when parliament convened to vote in July. As such, Limjaroenrat lost his prime minister bid.
After the MFP was blocked from forming a government by the Senate, the baton was handed off to the PTP to lead the country. As the party was less willing to implement institutional reforms that would reduce the power of the military and monarchy, the conservative establishment was more willing to back a government led by the PTP.
In a move widely seen as self-serving and antithetical to its election promises, the PTP broke off its alliance with the MFP and allied itself with military-backed parties to form a parliamentary majority and win votes from the senators. Thus, on August 23, Thavisin was elected as Thailand’s next prime minister. He received 152 votes from the Senate.
Although the senators were constitutionally allowed to vote however they wanted, their collective decision clearly violated the people’s will. This highlights a key mechanism of stealth authoritarianism, with Ozan Varol arguing that bureaucratic subordinates can uphold the existing regime by following the letter of the law but violating its spirit through their discretionary power.
Thailand as a Competitive Autocracy
The 2023 Thai election and its aftermath reveals Thailand for what it really is: a competitive autocracy that hides under the veneer of democracy.
On a spectrum, competitive authoritarianism as articulated by Steve Lewitsky and Lucan Way lies in between democracy and authoritarianism. In such a system, elections regularly occur and are generally free of fraud.
In line with Thai election laws, the 2023 race was held according to schedule, and the actual election was deemed mostly free and fair by third-party observers. As such, some may argue Thailand is democratic according to Schumpeter’s minimalist conception of democracy. However, Lewitsky and Way opine that if the cards are stacked against the opposition and citizens cannot translate their votes into real political representation, their governments cannot be considered democratic.
This can be seen in Thailand when unelected senators — who are supposed to be nonpartisan — prevented MFP leader Limjaroenrat from becoming prime minister. His party won the 2023 election, yet the popular will was disregarded in favor of establishment interests. The 2017 constitution allowing senators to vote for the country’s leader shows the military’s intent to influence electoral outcomes even if it loses the elections themselves.
However, that is not to say Thailand has become a full-blown autocracy. The fact that the PTP was able to take power shows how opposition forces are still able to contest for power in the country, which is characteristic of a competitive autocracy and not an autocratic state.
Regardless of Thailand’s regime type, it is clear from the 2023 election that the Thai people have democratic aspirations for their country. Although the military establishment was able to quash such hopes through institutional means this time around, it has only delayed a ticking time bomb. The generals would do well to truly understand what the people desire before the fuse runs out.