2023 was remarkable in Thai politics. A fairly clean general election ousted the pro-military government, replacing it with a coalition headed by a leading opposition party. But the coalition — which includes pro-military parties — rules under a powerful monarchy and alongside a Constitutional Court and Senate both appointed by the 2014–2019 junta.
Under the 2017 constitution, the Court can dissolve political parties and convict prime ministers, while Senators currently have the right to help select prime ministers. Thailand’s military has a reputation for overthrowing elected governments. In 2023, Thailand wavered between competitive authoritarianism and defective democracy.
At the beginning of 2023, the government, led by 2014 coup leader-turned-politician General Prayut Chan-o-cha, was already quite unpopular.
In 2021, then-deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan began a personal spat that eventually divided the military-backed parties during the 2023 election. Prawit was the party leader and prime ministerial candidate of the pro-junta Palang Pracharat party, while the United Thai Nation party became Prayut’s re-election vehicle. The pro-military, populist Bhumjaithai Party and liberal-conservative Democrats also contested the 2023 election. These divisions sliced up conservative voters and assisted the opposition.
Two parties dominated the opposition. First was the Pheu Thai, party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Ousted and exiled in 2006, Thaksin’s 2023 placeholders were his daughter Paetongtarn ‘Ung-Ing’ Shinawatra and businessman Srettha Thavisin. Besides its popularity, Pheu Thai used enormous sums of money and support from provincial bosses to come a respectable second in the election. Expecting losses, Prayut and Prawit secretly discussed a deal that would allow Thaksin to return to Thailand and eventually participate again in politics.
The other important opposition party was Move Forward. An offshoot of the disbanded Future Forward, Move Forward is a mostly urban-based progressive party, led by the charismatic Pita Limjaroenrat. It is composed of predominantly young people seeking to reform politics, the economy, the military and the monarchy. Move Forward was anathema to Thailand’s royal palace.
Few anticipated Move Forward’s electoral success. It won 151 seats while Pheu Thai secured 141. Both far exceeded Bumjaithai’s 71, Palang Pracharat’s 40, United Thai Nation’s 36 and the Democrats’ 25. But the arch-royalist Constitutional Court agreed to consider a flimsy legal case against Pita, and the Senate voted against his becoming prime minister.
Pheu Thai was instead given the chance to form a coalition. It jettisoned Move Forward while working with military-aligned parties — something Pheu Thai earlier promised it would never do. Pheu Thai became the centrist party of Thailand’s status quo, promising small reforms within a system led by a powerful monarchy and military.
On 22 August 2023, parliament voted in favour of Pheu Thai’s Srettha becoming prime minister. Thaksin also arrived back in Thailand to supposedly face prison but was whisked away to a police hospital. The palace quickly reduced his sentence so he could be freed in February 2024.
The King endorsed Srettha as Prime Minister on 23 August, and he was sworn in on 5 September. But between the May election and Srettha’s September investiture, Prayut had time to get his preferred military appointments endorsed by the King. Srettha later appointed the King’s favourite general, Torsak Sukimol, as Police Chief on 27 September.
Since taking office, Srettha has faced a number of challenges. The first is his plan to give 10,000 baht (US$284) to every Thai adult not considered wealthy. The scheme was criticised for being costly and is being considered by the Council of State. Prominent activist Srisuwan Janya asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the proposal’s legality.
A second challenge has been the sluggish economy. In November, Srettha said he was ‘very worried about the slower-than-expected economic growth’.
A third issue involves Srettha’s admission that Pheu Thai members of parliament have influenced the selection of provincial-level police station chiefs. Srisuwan has filed a motion against Srettha before the National Anti-Corruption Commission for ethical breaches.
A fourth challenge comes from the military. Though Srettha’s government appointed Thailand’s first civilian defence minister, Suthin Klangsaeng, Suthin lacks authority over the armed forces. Despite calls from Pheu Thai itself to dissolve the army-dominated Internal Security Operations Command, Srettha has refrained from doing so.
A fifth challenge was the killing of 39 Thai labourers and the capture of 32 Thais from Israel by Hamas. By late 2023, 23 had been released, but this issue challenges the authority of Srettha’s administration.
The biggest question for Thailand at the end of 2023 is how the country’s highly defective democracy can grow in 2024. Thaksin will likely soon be out of ‘hospital prison’. In May 2024 the Senate loses its power to help select prime ministers. And conservatives need Pheu Thai as a bulwark against inroads by Move Forward.
Pheu Thai’s government will likely continue receiving palace support unless Move Forward is suddenly dissolved or somehow fades away. After mid-2024, Thaksin will likely replace Srettha with Paetongtarn as prime minister, whom he can more reliably manipulate.
Three factors will determine Thailand’s future. If Pheu Thai decides to remain status quo stabiliser, it might become an entrenched, dynasty-led party. If Move Forward’s popularity continues to soar, it may win the 2027 election — causing a military or judicial coup. A coup could also take place if Thaksin attempts to enhance his power should Move Forward be dissolved.
The problem is Thailand’s democracy remains lost in transition. Elections continue, but real power resides with the monarchy and military. This was reflected in the King’s selection of Prayut to join the Privy Council in November 2023. One hope is the progressive Move Forward party, which commands the attention of most voters. But with conservatives in control, the chance that Move Forward will soon gain power is remote.
Dr Paul Chambers is Lecturer at the Centre of ASEAN Community Studies, Naresuan University, Thailand, and has published extensively on military affairs in Southeast Asia.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2023 in review and the year ahead.