Q&A: Kunthida Rungruengkiat on the State of Democracy in Thailand and Moving Forward
The May 2023 parliamentary elections in Thailand saw the highest voter turnout in the country’s history, delivering a historic win for the Move Forward Party (MFP) at the expense of both the ruling conservative coalition and traditional opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP), though the latter came in at a close second. Election observers remarked on the increased participation of civil society and the media, which led to a more transparent election compared to the 2019 ballot. While overall performance in Global State of Democracy metrics for Representation remains low, International IDEA’s latest 2023 Global State of Democracy report shows that Thailand has experienced significant improvements in many aspects of Representation over the past five years, including with regard to Credible Elections, Free Political Parties, Elected Government and Effective Parliament.
Additionally, Civic Engagement and Participation scores in Thailand have increased since the 2014 coup d’état, especially notable given the widespread use of defamation and cybercrimes laws used to silence dissent. The democratic energy that fuelled 2020-2021 mass demonstrations and calls for monarchy, military, and constitutional reform continue, with significant discussion around amending the 2017 junta-scripted constitution. Key demands from protesters include reducing military powers in government and amending or abolishing the country’s strict lèse-majesté law, widely criticized for disproportionally and excessively stifling free speech.
Despite MFP’s electoral success, the unelected, military-appointed Senate prevented the party’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, from becoming prime minister – effectively thwarting popular will. By August 2023, PTP had formed an 11-party coalition that included two military-backed parties, with Parliament electing PTP candidate Srettha Thavisin as the country’s new prime minister. MFP’s exclusion from the coalition stemmed from its commitment to reforming the royal defamation law – considered treasonous by lawmakers. Pita subsequently resigned as MFP party leader in September, allowing another MFP party member Chaithawat Tulathon to assume the role of parliament’s opposition leader.
As the dust settles following a turbulent period of government formation, the question remains: what's next for Thailand's democracy? To gain deeper insight into post-election sentiments, I spoke with Kunthida Rungruengkiat, Director at Progressive Movement Foundation and former Deputy Leader of Future Forward Party (FFP) in Thailand. FFP is the de factor predecessor of the Move Forward Party and is now defunct after being dissolved by a controversial Constitutional Court order in 2020.
How would you describe the political climate in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2023 election?
The record voter turnout and election results [reflect] the Thai people’s [eagerness] for real democracy. They were actively involved in the democratic process [beyond] just voting - through, for example, monitoring polling stations, assisting political campaigns, and questioning policies. However, complications arose as MFP could not form a coalition… made more complicated when Pita had to step down as party leader etc., leading people to a realization of irregularities in the electoral structure which actually have been prevalent since the  election.
People are waking up to the reality that the regime now operates differently, using legal manoeuvres to silence voices instead of [resorting to] blunt force. I was worried that people would lose faith in parliamentary and electoral processes, [given the historical context] of 13 coup d’états and now again with their voting wishes [not being] fulfilled. Yet faith remains crucial for civic engagement. Thai citizens have become more active, [channelling] their election-day energy into becoming super active citizens monitoring government policies and holding those in power to account. For example, they ask, “when are you going to have a referendum for the new constitution” which we know is a big obstacle for Thai democracy. The check and balance from the public and civil society becomes crucial.
How do you envision the government addressing some of the challenges you mentioned above, i.e., in ensuring that people still have trust and faith in the parliamentary process?
You cannot [solely] rely on civil society and public pressure, you also need that force reflected in parliament … and I think these two forces are synergizing. Democracy becomes strengthened when people feel that their voices are reflected in parliament. The recent election [also highlighted] that rural populations have become more interested and active in politics, but the local government is perceived by many Thai people to be ineffective. People shift their hope to national legislative members who are already overwhelmed with demands and complaints, many of which they have no authority or jurisdiction over. [Hence], strengthening local government systems is key for ensuring a healthier democratic system. It’s a long-term process that also includes promoting civic education and raising awareness on the roles of MPs and local governments.
What other countervailing institutions or forces can we look to in Thailand, beyond public protests?
It’s all interconnected, so civil society movements play an important role in [safeguarding] Thailand’s democracy. Thailand Human Rights Lawyer Association emerged nine years ago as an ad hoc movement [from the 2014 coup], and yet they are still here today assisting nearly 2000 people with political charges. [In fact], they recently received an award from the Clooney Foundation. We also have NGOs like iLaw who help educate the masses [in their demands for legislative change].
Progressive Movement Foundation is also actively involved in educational work, divided into both formal and informal types of learning. Formally there’s the academy with courses for youths, local leaders, and the labour movement. [Informally], we have various creative approaches aimed at integrating politics into people’s daily lives and making [politics] more accessible. This includes [hosting] events like reading groups, political piano concerts, and other cultural gatherings at the MFP headquarters, which also features a coffee shop and bar serving drinks with [witty] political messages.
Policy-wise, MFP also organizes hackathons during the national budget analysis for those interested, which empowers individuals and fosters their involvement in political processes. This participation is important for maintaining faith in the parliamentary system.
Kunthida Rungruengkiat (centre left) at International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Global Launch Event on 2 November 2023 in Stockholm, Sweden.
How can the PTP rebuild public trust in the wake of concerns that the decision to exclude MFP from the new coalition and include two pro-military parties undermines PTP’s democratic credentials, especially given previous pledges to refrain from aligning with those involved in past coups? What's next for Thailand's democracy under the new prime minister and PT-led coalition government?
The cost [of excluding MFP from the coalition] is high. However, I believe they think they can mitigate that by implementing economic policies that make the “bread and butter” pop up on people's table again, [so to speak]. Still, people have already expressed their demands for structural change. [As such], constitutional reform is not [off-the table], yet they keep delaying the kick-off of that amendment process. And the next question will be whether we will have the elected drafting committee members or not [which] is super important. So, this will be the next challenge for this new administration.
To my assessment, we’ll see the government being stretched between two forces in responding to the democratic wishes of the people [on the one hand], while not going against the wishes of the military [on the other]. For example, MFP recently proposed the shutdown of a costly military spatial unit doing developmental work that other ministries are already doing. Yet the government says they have no intention in shutting that unit down. So, the new PT led coalition will likely try to manoeuvre in a way that responds to the peoples’ demands while trying to not overstep into the territory of the military because at the end of the day they also want to win the next election.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.