‘Bangkok Spring’ Sets Up Showdown Over Role of Thai Monarchy

(Bloomberg) -- An upstart Thai political party delivered a shocking blow to a royalist establishment that has suppressed democracy over the past two decades. Now the question is whether it can implement real change without a fight.

Most Read from Bloomberg

Pita Limjaroenrat, the 42-year-old Harvard-educated leader of Move Forward, staked his claim to becoming Thailand’s prime minister after his party won the most seats and total votes in Sunday’s election. The party was by far the most ideological in a field of politicians pledging populist handouts, standing alone among major groups in calling for changes to a law that restricts criticism of the nation’s powerful monarchy.

Addressing reporters after the win, Pita vowed not to compromise in the push to change Article 112, a law known as “lese majeste” that can put offenders behind bars for as many as 15 years if they’re convicted of insulting 70-year-old King Maha Vajiralongkorn or several other top royals.

“I’m worried about the relationship between the people and the monarchy, especially the younger generation,” Pita said on Monday.

“We’ll use the parliament to make sure that it’s a comprehensive discussion, with maturity, transparency and how we should move forward in terms of the relationship between the monarchy and the masses,” he added. “It’s fair to say that it’s the sentiment of the era that has changed.”

The push to directly change laws affecting the monarchy breaks a longstanding taboo in Thailand, where in years past even the suggestion of disloyalty to the palace has been grounds for the military to stage a coup, leading to successive bouts of deadly street protests that have held back Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy. Generals booted out an elected government in 2006 and then again in 2014, each time vowing to crack down on elements that posed a threat to the monarchy.

Tensions started to build further after the 2016 death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was widely revered after spending 70 years on the throne. His son, King Vajiralongkorn, succeeded him and quickly asserted his authority, taking direct command of some army units and acquiring personal ownership of Crown Property Bureau assets valued at tens of billions of dollars.

A backlash manifested in the form of student-led protests in 2020 calling for more checks and balances on the monarchy. While the demonstrations eventually flamed out, many who participated ended up joining or supporting Move Forward — sowing the seeds for the party’s sweeping victory on Sunday.

“This is a ‘Bangkok Spring,’” Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, told The Nation television network, using a term first associated with political liberalization in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. “Military leaders jumped out of their tanks and climbed into campaign trucks with confidence, but were crushed by dissenting voters.”

Yet if history is any guide, the hard work is just starting for Pita and other pro-democracy parties. Ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a former general who led the 2014 coup, warned that groups proposing sweeping societal changes will drag the country into a “black hole of conflict.”

The potential for a conservative backlash is one reason investors were divided on the outcome, with the baht rallying by the most in five weeks while the benchmark SET Index fell 1.3%. Shares of companies linked to some of Thailand’s billionaires slumped on concern a government led by Move Forward may unveil measures to usher in more competition in sectors such as telecommunications and power.

“There is a possibility that the government formula that we heard today may be totally different from the real thing over the next two-three months,” said Tim Leelahaphan, a Bangkok-based economist at Standard Chartered Bank Plc.

The first obstacle for Pita is a 250-member Senate appointed by the junta that took power in 2014. This group gets to vote for prime minister, and could still cobble together enough support with more conservative smaller parties to prevent Pita and other pro-democracy leaders from forming a government.

Doing so, however, risks sparking more violent protests and may be short-sighted, given the Senate’s ability to vote for prime minister is scheduled to expire next year. That means any minority government would be subject to a confidence vote that could see pro-democracy parties eventually take power.

More significant, perhaps, will be any attempts by Move Forward to amend the lese majeste law or to change the constitution. The appointed Senate can still block either of those initiatives. In addition, any legal changes can also be subject to review by the Constitutional Court, which has disbanded numerous political parties that have be seen to challenge the monarchy.

Pita need look no further than Pheu Thai, another pro-democracy party that finished second overall, to understand the risks. Two previous incarnations of the party have been disbanded, and governments led by two former Shinawatra prime ministers — Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra — were ousted in separate coups. Thaksin is currently in exile and seeking to return to Thailand.

Current Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, who helped write the constitution after the 2014 coup, warned Monday that the new government risks facing similar protests and resistance.

The military, palace and a minority of people willing to get on the streets amount to “an opposition which is more powerful than a parliamentary opposition,” according to Kevin Hewison, emeritus professor of Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“So Move Forward, Pheu Thai — whatever government they might put together — has to be careful,” he said. “They probably have to proceed with a considerable amount of caution.”

--With assistance from Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Anuchit Nguyen.

(Adds details.)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.