Thailand’s Orange Wave: Progressives, Conservatives, and Monarchy
In their reaction to a whopping election defeat, Thailand’s conservatives want to diminish the electorate’s votes in the defence of the monarchy. This unambiguous politicisation of the crown by its supporters is a perilous strategy, stokes republicanism, and may put the monarchy at risk.
On 15 May, the Move Forward, an upstart progressive party built on the foundation laid in the 2019 election by the then soon-to-be dissolved Future Forward Party, stormed home winning 113 of the House of Representative’s 400 constituency seats. It also won about 39 party list seats, with more than 14 million party list votes or 36 percent of the total cast. This stunning result even surpassed the Pheu Thai Party, the country’s electoral juggernaut since 2001. With Pheu Thai, Move Forward is negotiating a coalition with more than 310 seats.
In Thailand’s colour-coded politics, Move Forward chose orange, indicating a kind of centrism between Thailand’s yellow-shirted royalists and red shirts associated with Thaksin Shinawatra and popular opposition to the military coups of 2006 and 2014. While centrist in global political terms, in Thailand’s political spectrum Move Forward represents a progressive politics. But for Thailand’s conservatives, Move Forward is dangerously radical.
These conservatives, who have consistently rallied behind rightist and military regimes, are first and foremost royalists. For them, the monarchy is a pillar of the nation and of Thai identity. Their royalist ideology has been propagandised for decades and is embedded in all manner of institutions, but especially in the military. Royalist-military conservatives have run Thailand since the 2014 coup.
Despite all this power and influence, the parties representing conservatives and their ideology were trounced in the election. The parties that had been in opposition following the rigged 2019 election, including Move Forward and Pheu Thai, received more than 65 percent of the party list vote compared with less than 20 percent for the parties of the previous military-backed government. Move Forward swept the country, championing change, such as economic restructuring and de-monopolisation; reform of the military, judiciary, constitution, and bureaucracy, including decentralisation; and modifications to the draconian lese majeste law.
Despite the opposition’s electoral landslide, and even before the new government has been confirmed, conservatives immediately sought to derail any Move Forward-led coalition. Several strategies are being deployed. One involves trying to drive a wedge between Pheu Thai and Move Forward, wrangling for a coalition that includes military-backed parties and excludes Move Forward. Another tactic, used several times since 2006, seeks judicial intervention to dissolve parties and ban politicians. A case is already pending against Pita Limjaroenrat, Move Forward’s leader and its prime ministerial nominee.
If Pita can put together a coalition, his most immediate threat is Thailand’s appointed Senate. As has been widely reported, under the 2017 constitution, drawn up under the direction of a military junta, the proposed prime minister must receive the support of more than half of the combined members of parliament of 500 elected lower house members and the Senate’s 250 members.
The senators were all appointed by the military-backed regime in 2019, and are meant to prevent an “unacceptable” party forming government. At the time, the conservatives were thinking of a Thaksin-associated party, but in their view, Move Forward is even more detestable.
This is just one of a several timebombs in the constitution. It was written to embed what the military junta called “national reform.” The chapter of the constitution dealing with “national reform” was an expression of the military junta’s 20-year plan to make Thailand a resolutely conservative polity by, as the constitution has it, “ensuring that people have correct knowledge and understanding on the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State.” The appointed Senate is constitutionally assigned to monitor and promote this conservative agenda.
The constitution also includes numerous provisions that maintain this conservative agenda. For example, the country’s so-called independent agencies have all been filled by conservatives and loyalists and the judiciary is notoriously conservative and royalist. The Senate itself remains in place until 2024. When combined with the armed power of the military and police, the conservative weight in the polity remains formidable.
While there was considerable promotion of economic and political issues during the election campaign, it was reform of the lese majeste law or Article 112 of the Criminal Code that came to underpin many debates, especially as opinion polls revealed a rising wave of support for Move Forward. In the campaign, reform of Article 112 became a code for a long simmering debate over the monarchy.
In fact, it was the 2020 youth-led movement calling for reform of the monarchy that gave volume to critical discussions of the monarchy. For conservatives and the military-backed government, such debate was seditious, and they worked hard to repress them, charging, arresting, and jailing scores of mostly young people for lese majeste and sedition. This repression quietened things but the election campaign became a spectacle of royalist conservatives demanding that Article 112 not be amended as Move Forward was promising to do. Voters have now emphatically rejected this conservative strategy.
Despite this, royalist senators have been lining up to reject Move Forward and Pita. They have questioned Pita’s “attitude” towards the monarchy, implying he is disloyal. Indeed, they have established a panel to “test” this – it can be expected to find him unfitting. Article 112 is a convenient proxy for “protecting” the monarchy. As one senator put it: “All senators agree that … the lese-majeste law … should be off-limits to either cancellation or revision, and we believe the existing law is appropriate.” Move Forward argue that a law that limits free speech and is used against the young – with the two youngest just 14 years old – needs reform.
Yet this royalist tactic imperils democratisation, political stability, and the crown itself. It is risky for the monarchy because it does what Article 112 allegedly seeks to prevent: it negates its constitutional position as “above politics.” The royalists, by situating the monarchy at the core of their rejection of the people’s mandate, expose the monarchy as a political target.
The palace’s position on the election outcome is unknown. However, it might be assumed that there would be considerable unease over the popularity of a party that has supported monarchy reform protesters. In the past, the king has publicly commended royalists who opposed the monarchy reform movement. Should the conservatives, in the name of the monarchy, succeed in stymying Move Forward and voter sentiment, its use of lese majeste and the monarchy unmistakeably involves the monarchy in a reactionary political movement.
If Move Forward is thwarted, the popular response can be expected to be angry and determined, and following the lead of the protests of 2020, symbols of the crown will likely be targeted and the calls for its reform will be louder than ever. Criticism is likely to veer into republicanism, further challenging the core of conservative beliefs. A military intervention cannot be ruled out. Given King Vajiralongkorn’s personal control of military units in Bangkok, another coup would certainly be identified as royalist and would be vigorously opposed, probably irreversibly damaging the monarchy’s position.
Kevin Hewison is Weldon E Thornton Distinguished Emeritus Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Adjunct Professor, University of Macau, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences. He is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Contemporary Asia.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.