“What happened in the 2023 Thai election?” A post-election discussion at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand, Bangkok
Thailand’s 2023 general election was one of the year’s most anticipated. Keen observers of the country’s politics wondered whether the longtime incumbent prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha – who seized power in a 2014 coup – would be able to hang on amid growing discontent and an invigorated opposition movement. While many hoped the progressives would make ground, the results were truly stunning. Almost 40 million Thais – a national record – weighed in at the ballot box.
Much has been written about the significance of voter’s behaviour, and the possible consequences of Thailand’s constitutional provision that ultimately hands unelected, junta-appointed senators the power to appoint a different prime minister than the candidate backed by most voters, the Move Forward Party’s leader Pita Limjaroenrat. The ultimate outcome of the election will not be known for some weeks. While the Election Commission of Thailand confirmed the results on 25 May, government formation has not yet occurred.
While the public’s voice was clear, questions remained about the performance of the country’s electoral management body and the ability of local officials to implement this important election.
International IDEA and the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand hosted a two-hour discussion, featuring Thai electoral observer groups, who discussed the credibility of the election itself, conduct at the polls, and the next steps forward in the country’s electoral process.
Opening the discussion, International IDEA’s Asia and the Pacific regional director Leena Rikkilä Tamang heralded the delivery of “successful, non-partisan elections” monitored by citizen voters, and reminded the audience:
“These elections are not yet over but can be fully assessed when the complaints have been addressed, requests for recount finalized, and when the power is peacefully transferred to the democratically elected government,” she said.
Commenting on the early results from the election, which saw a groundswell of near nation-wide support for the Move Forward Party, Dr Laddawan Tantivitayapitak, secretary-general of the Open Forum for Democracy Foundation (P-Net) said it was an “… exciting moment for the people of Thailand.”
She reflected on the improvements made by the ECT, attributing it to their ability to finetune the process in the years since the 2019 election – characterised by multiple “provincial and legislative and governor elections”.
Dr Tantivitayapitak credited the country’s civil society for mobilising with local media to advocate against the practice of vote buying.
“Political parties [also] had to change their way of thinking [away from vote buying] and we look forward to seeing politics in Thailand change for the better of the people,” she said.
This election was also marked by a reinvigorated fourth estate – with local media organisations banding together under the Watcher Campaign to provide rapid reporting function from polling stations around the country.
Adisak Limparungpatakit, head of the Watcher Campaign and director of Digital Television Association of Thailand said the collaboration was inspired by a smaller effort during the 2022 Bangkok gubernatorial election.
“[In 2022], only six media channels were involved. This time, we had between 15 and 20 media organisations working together to provide the rapid reporting,” he said.
Moderator and Reuters senior correspondent Panu Wongcha-um agreed that the media, both through the Watcher Campaign and independently, played a critical role in pressuring the ECT to improve its performance.
iLaw’s (Internet Law Reform Dialogue) advocacy officer, Ruchapong Chamjirachaikul, said the initial results were a strong indication that “the people have spoken”, adding, “this election is a win for the civil campaigns and public participation that aimed to strengthen democracy.”
Referring to their Vote62.com initiative, Ruchapong Chamjirachaikul said, “We asked people to go to the polling stations when they closed at 5pm to observe the counting process and take pictures of the result to send it back to our website so that if there were any reports of irregularities would investigate.”
“What is so impressive is that many of our volunteers are elderly or students [under 18 years old] who cannot even vote. One lady messaged us and said she is in sixties, and this is her first time [volunteering], she told us she wants to do something [important] to leave behind in this world,” he said.
According to Ruchapong Chamjirachaikul, more than 100,000 Thais volunteered to take part, which in part attributed to low levels of trust in the ECT.
Commenting on the incredible support showed for the Move Forward Party throughout the country, Dr Gothom Arya, Coordinator of the Election Campaign Code of Conduct, said voters appeared to have grown tired of “the mouth and stomach policies” used by most parties, that focused mainly on the costs of everyday consumables. Instead, voters wanted policies “based on ideology, on democracy – and only the Move Forward Party realised that,” he said. Given the relatively low percentage of total voters comprised of young Thais, he added that the enthusiasm for social and political change had caught fire across generational lines.