Pita Limjaroenrat, House of Representative member in Thailand Parliament, Future Forward Party. Sirakorn Lamyai - Own work

A Political Earthquake in Thailand and What Comes Next for Thai Foreign Policy

On May 14th, Thailand held general elections. The results were a shock to the Thai political system.

Since a 2014 coup, military leaders have dominated Thai politics. A mainstream opposition party has challenged military rule, but has been generally thwarted at every turn.  However, this year a third party emerged victorious — and its vision for the country represents a radically progressive shift in Thai politics.

The Move Forward Party, lead by the charismatic Harvard and MIT educated 42 year-old Pita Limjaroenrat handily won the elections. And they did so by channeling a kind of progressive populism that can change Thailand’s domestic political culture and foreign policy in big ways.

On the podcast today is Prashanth Parameswaran, Fellow at the Wilson Center and founder of the excellent ASEAN Wonk Substack Newsletter.  We kick off discussing the political context in which Move Forward won these elections. We then have an extended conversation about how the Military Junta rigged the Thai political system in such a way that the Move Forward Party may never actually be able to form a government — and even if they did, the threat of a coup would loom large. We then discuss what this election means in terms of Thai foreign policy and geopolitical competition in Southeast Asia between the US and China.

You can go here to listen to it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred app.

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Transcript edited for clarity

Mark Goldberg [00:03:03] Can I have you explain why the election results were so extraordinary? Why was move Ford’s victory so earth shaking in the context of Thai politics? 

Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran [00:03:14] So I think to start just important to frame the importance and the significance of the election, because I think sometimes Thailand is portrayed in the headlines as kind of a minnow, a country that is sort of fledgling between various military coups and so on and so forth. 

[00:03:30] I think it’s important to keep in mind that Thailand is just outside of the top 20 populous countries in the world. It’s the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, and it’s one of just five U.S. treaty alliances in Asia as we’re talking about this dynamic of US-China competition. So it’s an extremely significant country. 

Mark Goldberg [00:03:53] And I learned recently in a book I’m reading about the history of the region that the United States and Thailand established diplomatic relations back in the 19th century that it was one of the first countries in the region to establish diplomatic relations with the U.S.. 

Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran [00:04:07] That’s right. That’s a really important point that you bring up. There’s often a reference to the security alliance that is in the 20th century. But way before that, there was commerce that was going on with the United States. The United States was actively sending advisors to Thailand. And Thailand is also the only country in Southeast Asia to have not been officially colonized. And that is not by accident. I think there was a lot of diplomatic maneuvering that Thai leaders were doing with respect to that. 

[00:04:35] So this is a country that’s very used to managing its domestic politics that are very complicated on the one hand, and then also managing the dynamics of the international system on the other. I think is a really important point to keep in mind. On your question about Move Forward and the victory, I think it is important to view the election in the context of a decades-long struggle in Thailand between how to you balance elite sources of legitimacy and popular sources of legitimacy. 

[00:05:05] In terms of elite sources of legitimacy in Thailand, that’s meant the monarchy, the military, and the bureaucracy. There’s been a tension between that elite source of legitimacy and the popular source of legitimacy of the population and really huge societal changes that Thailand has seen over the past few decades. 

[00:05:25] So Move Forward’s is important because I think before the election there was a clear sense that there was a demand for something that’s different, beyond the current military government. There hadn’t been an election that was held since 2019, so there was a quest for change. But very few people predicted that move forward, which is a progressive party within the context of Thailand, would emerge as the largest victor in the elections by far — that it would get this kind of margin of victory, and that’s exactly what it did. 

[00:05:59] So this is really the first time that we’ve seen a progressive party in Thailand register such significant gains — not just in terms of the number of seats. If you look at the margin of victory in Bangkok, they won almost all the seats except just one. And that was replicated throughout various parts of the country. 

[00:06:20] Move Forward, has been seen previous to the election as being this party that was affiliated with the youth and the younger generation. But even if you look at the demographic data, they perform very well across the board. I think it does speak to this larger than anticipated demand for change in Thailand or something that’s different. 

[00:06:38] So that is very important because in this notion of the contestation between the elite sources of legitimacy and popular sources of legitimacy, when you have the population have such a clear message, the military that dominates the government has to decide how to respond. They have few more weeks before they officially certify and manage the results, and then they have to select somebody to lead the country. 

[00:07:04] There’s been some shenanigans that have gone on in Thailand in the past, the military intervening. Thailand’s has had about 12 successful coups since 1932 — it averaged just about one coup per decade or less. And so this notion of intervention that is preventing the voice of the population from speaking is something we’ve seen before in Thailand. And I think that’s the big question in the wake of this clear signal that the population is sending: How will the elites respond, primarily the military, given the say that they have in the country? 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:39] You referred a few times now to Move Forward as “progressive.” What does progressive mean in a Thai political context, and how is that in contrast to the way things are currently done? 

Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran [00:07:57] This is a very important point because essentially what Move Forward has suggested relative to either the military-ruled and backed parties in the election or more conservative parties are very bold measures. So, for example, making reforms to Thailand’s constitution. Thailand has provisions that if you say something that’s critical of the monarchy, there’ll be charges that will be brought against you. They are looking to challenge directly one of the major long-standing institutions in Thailand, the monarchy, and then also ending military conscription, which directly gets at the military. 

[00:08:39] Their pre-election platform and what they have been saying before the election really took aim at the various sources of elite rule in Thailand and talked about fundamentally reforming that such that they would actually cater more to the popular voices within Thailand as well. So this is coming in a time where they’ve won this major margin of victory, and there’s some math that they have to navigate in terms of forming a majority before getting to a government. 

[00:09:08] Now, the question is going to be how do they balance those bold proposals that they made before the election with compromises that they may need to make — or maybe they decide not to make — in the post-election context so they will actually govern. The other piece of that is that we do have a record in Thailand of governments that have won elections, gone on to rule, but are deposed in a coup a few years later, or there’s instances of instability, ouster, parliamentary maneuvering and so on and so forth. 

[00:09:38] So the question is not only just the initial compromises, but also how long and sustainable the government will be in that context. Move Forward stands opposed to the more conservative or military led parties which propagate more of a respect and deference to institutions like the monarchy — those parties that make it clear that the military’s role will remain untouched, 

Mark Goldberg [00:10:03] So you just referenced the math challenge that will confront Move Forward as it seeks to try to form a new government. We are currently speaking in this kind of weird period after the elections, but before a government has been formed. There is a lot of commentary I’m seeing in the media that in fact the challenge of forming a new government may be exceedingly difficult, if not insurmountable because of that math issue. 

[00:10:37] As I take it, there are something like 750 total seats, including the upper and lower chamber, and one needs a simple majority of 376 in order to form a government. But that half of those seats, I believe, are in the upper chamber, which is mostly dominated and controlled by the military. Could you just explain this challenge as you understand it right now? 

Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran  [00:11:06] So what you referred to as the sort of mass challenge is the fact that there are about 500 seats in the lower House and 250 seats in the Upper House. In the upper House, the 250 seats are essentially military appointed seats. If you do the math, you have to win a majority of those 750 total seats to form a government, which amounts to a 376 seats. That’s a very high bar to clear. 

[00:11:40] Obviously that math, it’s not set in stone. So those 250 appointed seats in the upper house, you know, perhaps there might be some of them that might change their minds if they see where the political winds are blowing. So that can be navigated. 

[00:11:55] So that’s the math challenge in terms of what Move Forward has to do. And so it has to form a coalition with other parties to do that. Now, going back to the earlier point we were talking about, they may have to perhaps make some compromises on some of the proposals they had pre-election in order to do that. And they also have to be careful that they’re not overplaying their hand. 

[00:12:17] Perhaps the military backed parties and the other conservative parties may look to try to form some sort of minority coalition that may not sustainably last, but that may affect how Move Forward plays its cards as well. We’re in this kind of odd period where there’s going to be some sort of political negotiation that has to be made. 

[00:12:39] The other aspect of that is the engineering problem, which is even if Move Forward does manage to get this coalition together, there are still some questions about whether some form of either military intervention or judicial intervention could occur. There’s past precedents for this. So Move Forward is essentially the successor to the Future Forward party, which won much higher than anticipated margins in the previous tie election. That party was eventually outlawed and then Move Forward was formed. 

[00:13:15] So we’ve kind of seen this before, where we have a more progressive party outperforming what folks thought it might garner in the election and then some sort of engineering that prevents it from actually taking power. And I think there are worries that it could happen now. Now, I would say that Move Forward, got a very, very high margin in terms of the number of seats that it won. If you look at what the leaders have been saying, their messaging strategy, it’s all been around this almost relentless push saying, “It’d be very disastrous if this outcome is not respected.”

[00:13:52] This is a very clear margin. So this is something which I think is very different from the situation we found ourselves before. But nonetheless, the same questions will be asked only because Move Forward is not simply saying we want to govern and we’re going to keep the status quo. They’re proposing clear changes to the institutions in Thailand that have some popular support, but also within the elites. Naturally, there will be some nervousness about what this means for Thai domestic politics. 

Mark Goldberg [00:14:23] Who is the leader of Move Forward? And going back to your earlier point about the important role that Thailand plays in the region, what do we know about his foreign policy predilections? 

Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran [00:14:42] Pita Limjaroenrat is the leader of Move Forward. He is an extremely charismatic, outsized figure. He graduated from Harvard and is very active on social media. He espouses a very internationalist approach to Thai foreign policy that talks about being principled in international relations. 

[00:15:03] His approach goes something like: “If we’re seeing something like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Thailand shouldn’t just be hedging its bets as it’s doing now. We should really speak out on this more clearly because we’re a small country and this could potentially happen to us. and we should have very clear notions around democracy and human rights. 

[00:15:21] We’re seeing a situation in Myanmar, which is a very sad situation that’s going on with a civil war. Pita said Thailand should be more active in terms of promoting humanitarian assistance, working within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — the regional grouping in Southeast Asia — to be more active on this front and take more leadership. 

[00:15:43] So he’s espousing a very internationalist notion of Thai foreign policy. There are some components of it that even the military-backed government espoused is a variation of. But it’s been very difficult for the military to espouse that approach, particularly in the initial few years, because they were dealing with a huge legitimacy crisis when they took power following the coup. 

[00:16:06] Thailand over the past decade or so has moved closer to China. Some of that’s been arrested a little bit with what the United States and the Biden administration has been doing. Thailand is a treaty ally to the US, so no matter what it does with China, it still pales in comparison to what it did with the United States. 

[00:16:23] But nonetheless, on China, on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on Myanmar, we have seen Thailand take more of a hedged position and have to really think about domestic political implications for the regime and the ruling elites because of the nature and form of its government. And I think Pita is espousing a very different notion of that. That’s very appealing in Southeast Asia because it hasn’t really been a good few decades or so for democracy in Southeast Asia. 

[00:16:52] If you look at Myanmar, for example, that was on a good trajectory that’s gotten a bit worse. Malaysia, you’ve got a good story with Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister, but it’s averaged about a new government every year or two in the last few years or a different prime minister is coming in and out. Indonesia is headed for elections next year. Cambodia is heading for elections where Hun Sen is set to prolong his legacy and is squashing opposition. 

[00:17:17] So Thailand is this kind of case that people are looking for because Thailand has had a very outsized leadership role in Southeast Asia. So in addition to being the second largest economy, if you look historically, Thailand played a very critical role in the advancement of ASEAN. It was actually in Bangkok where, ASEAN promulgated in the initial years. And the founding declaration of ASEAN, the Bangkok declarations, were actually named after Bangkok. 

[00:17:50] So this is a country that plays a very important role in Southeast Asia. And within the context of US-China competition, if you’re a U.S. policymaker and you’re looking at mainland Southeast Asia you’ve got Cambodia and Laos moving closer to China. You’ve got Myanmar in the midst of civil war. Vietnam and Thailand are the two countries that really matter a lot when it comes to positioning with respect to China. 

[00:18:15] And in the case of Vietnam, you have a one party Communist party. So there’s going to be some challenges to that, irrespective of the strategic outlook. But in Thailand, there’s always this promise around a more democratic government, a more like-minded partner. That hasn’t been the case over the last few years in the U.S.-Thai alliance. They’ve been able to make some inroads, but there is this notion of perhaps greater strategic alignment if Move Forward comes to power. 

Mark Goldberg [00:18:39] It  sounds like Pita would be an ideal person from an American perspective. You have a person who espouses this liberal, internationalist progressivism that sort of sits at the heart of the U.S. notions for the world. And, as you noted, it potentially could be an anchor of stability in the region. What do we know about how China is approaching these elections? And from Beijing’s perspective is a Pita-led government something to which they may be wary? 

Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran [00:19:24] I think for China, as well as the United States and other international actors, the big question in Southeast Asia is do the domestic forces at play allow leaders to actually exercise the kind of vision that they want?  You do have these leaders that emerge: you had Aung Sang Soo Kyi in Myanmar, you have Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, you now have — potentially — Pita in Thailand. 

[00:19:43] Even if these leaders come to power and they do really well, are they also able to navigate the domestic politics as they navigate the foreign policy components of that? So you can have a good vision internationally, but you also need to make sure the domestic dynamics are navigated. I think that’s the big question moving forward. 

[00:20:07] China is looking at this quite cautiously. You had the coup in Myanmar that happened, which required some recalibration on their part. You had the Malaysian election last year that brought Anwar Ibrahim to power, which required some recalibration on their part as well. And now you have Thailand, another big country, and then you have Indonesia next year. 

[00:20:29] That’s two of Southeast Asia’s biggest economies going to elections where there’s going to be some change in government. So I think Beijing will be very cautious in saying “How does this vision that Pita has translate into reality?” I think the more cynical take on this would be that the military and the monarchy will always exercise some degree of influence, irrespective of who is governing the country in Thailand. 

[00:20:55] So the big question is going to be how is he going to navigate that? And on the specifics of the US-China competition, Pita has been very careful to say we’re going to advance economic cooperation with China because it’s important. 

[00:21:08] And one of his big priorities is to shore up Thailand’s economy, because it’s become a much more competitive place within Southeast Asia. A few decades ago, Thailand was among one of the largest receivers of foreign direct investment. It’s a much more complicated environment now because countries like Vietnam, which were trailing behind Thailand, are now registering among the highest growth rates — not just in Southeast Asia, but in all of Asia more generally. 

[00:21:36] So it’s a more competitive environment, it’s a more contested geopolitical environment. And he does want to advance that economic dimension of that relationship. But his pre-election agenda platform clearly mentions promoting peace and democratic values in the way that Thailand moves with its alignments. 

[00:21:55] And that very clearly suggests that there would be a little bit more caution in terms of how far they move with China now. Again, how does this translate to reality is the big question. I think 20 years ago, if you were to say Thailand was buying Chinese submarines as a U.S. treaty ally, I think you would have been laughed out of the room. But that’s what’s happened under the military government. They’ve entered into a series of agreements with China. They have exercises now that are going on with Beijing that are some of the biggest in Southeast Asia thus far. 

Mark Goldberg [00:22:25] I would imagine that part of that reason is that the United States cut off military aid after 2014, owing to U.S. legislation requiring the cutting off of military aid to countries that have had a coup. 

Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran [00:22:41] That’s an important indicator about the interrelationship between domestic politics and foreign policy. Because you saw this coup in Thailand, the United States had to take certain measures and then Thailand and the junta in response took other measures, including reaching out to China and other countries tobalance that. 

[00:23:02] Now U.S.-Thailand relations have recalibrated a little bit — they drafted and released a new communique looking out in terms of a vision for the alliance, they’re making more inroads in terms of security cooperation. But those relationships with China, once you start out, they’re sticky. You can’t just unravel them because of domestic political considerations. 

[00:23:22] I think that’s the big concern for Thailand. For much of the 21st century, Thailand’s foreign policy has been almost subordinated to domestic political considerations and regime changes. Are we going to see perhaps a little bit more political stability that will allow Thailand more freedom and leverage to exercise international leadership and a more internationalist vision in the coming years? Or are we going to see a variation of what we’ve seen in the past few decades? 

[00:23:51] Because, again, we’ve seen this playbook before. The former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who came to power in 2000, was a very populist leader and then was ousted in the coup. And this is kind of where we have ended up. So I think that’s why you’re seeing a little bit more caution from more seasoned observers of Thailand. 

[00:24:09] There’s a lot of good rhetoric about potential change, but the real story in Thailand in terms of its domestic politics has been one of continuity rather than change in spite of the fact that the calls for reform, the calls for societal change, are actually growing louder among the population. 

[00:24:28] It’s a similar trend we see throughout parts of Southeast Asia. And really other countries too, including the U.S., which is, where institutions are really being stressed by the demands of society and population. And they need to change. And the extent to which they change or sometimes a lot slower than the demands for what that change should be. 

Mark Goldberg [00:24:47] Thank you so much for your time. This is very helpful. 

Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran [00:24:51] Thanks. Good to be with you.