Protests in Bangkok on October 15, 2020. Protesters are calling for reform of the monarchy and fresh elections in Thailand. Photo credit: Wikimedia/Milktea2020 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Freedom House Rating
Not Free (improved to Partly Free in 2020, but fell back down in 2021)
December 20, 2020
Other Local Elections
TBD (due soon)
March 24, 2019
Thailand holds municipal elections on March 28, 2021. These follow the December 20, 2020 provincial elections, the first since the country’s 2014. After that, officials have said they will schedule elections for other types of local elections (such as municipal offices and Bangkok city council).
Thailand’s March 24, 2019 parliamentary election nominally returned the country to civilian rule following a military coup in 2014. However, the country remains deeply polarized. Scholar Janjira Sombatpoonsiri characterizes Thailand’s polarization as follows: “The royal nationalist worldview regards the Thai king as the country’s legitimate ruler; the competing democratic outlook contends that sovereignty resides with the Thai people….Relentless political conflict has split Thai society down the middle, undermining social cohesion and fueling tensions even in moments of crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.”
The upcoming local elections are taking place in the context of unprecedented protests against the monarchy, and calls for unprecedented types of reforms. These protests have been going on for months.
For background: The main political fault line during the elections was between pro- and anti-junta political parties. For two decades, the (sometimes violent) fight between controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – who was ousted from office and convicted of corruption and is now living in exile – on the one hand and the military on the other hand dominated Thai politics. Thaksin’s populist Pheu Thai party won the most seats (136 out of 500).
Meanwhile, a new party, the progressive Future Forward Party (FFP), founded by billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, captured the imagination of many of Thailand’s younger voters. It had originally been formed to give voters an alternative to the “red shirts” and “yellow shirts” – the feud between Thaksin’s mostly rural supporters and his opponents – a coalition of royalists and middle class urbanite. But Pheu Thai’s negotiations with FPP fell through.
Therefore, former junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha’s new pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) subsequently formed a government in coalition with several other parties, including former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s conservative Democrats – Thailand’s oldest political party. Prayuth became prime minister.
The military still wields considerable power behind the scenes. Nonetheless, following the elections, Freedom House improved Thailand’s rating from Not Free to Partly Free, citing “a slight reduction in restrictions on assembly and tightly controlled elections that, despite significant flaws, ended a period of direct rule by military commanders.”
In 2020, Thailand’s Constitution Court dissolved the Future Forward Party. That act kicked off a series of protests, beginning on university campuses but ultimately spreading, and ultimately involving tens of thousands of Thais. Protesters are calling for fresh elections and a reform of the monarchy – previously a taboo in Thailand, which has strict lèse majesté laws.
The fact that the current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, is both decadent and power-hungry has exacerbated the calls for reform. His father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, was beloved in Thailand and abroad. However, Vajiralongkorn has been compared to the notoriously cruel and incompetent Roman emperor Caligula.
Future Forward Party has reconstituted itself as the Progressive Party, and plans to contest the upcoming local elections.
Thailand is a long-standing United States ally. During the Cold War, each saw the other as an important bulwark against Chinese and Vietnamese aggression. However, the two countries are growing father apart as each country’s view of existential threats evolves.
Bangkok Post (March 26, 2021): Slew of arrests before municipal polls
Emmy Sasipornkarn, DW (March 24, 2021): Thailand protests: What’s next for the stalled pro-democracy movement?
AFP (March 24, 2021): Thai protesters defy police and rally in Bangkok for royal reforms
Lauren Tousignant, New York Post (March 1, 2021): Thai marchers link their democracy cause to Myanmar protests
Al Jazeera (February 28, 2021): Thai protesters, police clash near PM’s residence
Bangkok Post (February 6, 2021): 2021 ‘the year of elections’
Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono, New York Times (February 1, 2021): Thailand Targets Pro-Democracy Protesters in Sweeping Legal Dragnet
Bangkok Post (January 15, 2021): Kingdom gears for municipal elections
Panarat Thepgumpanat, Reuters (November 11, 2020): Thai monks ordered not to join protests
Randy Thanthong-Knight, Bloomberg (October 27, 2020): Focused on Thai King, Protesters Vow to Persist Even If PM Quits
Ramy Inocencio, CBS News (October 26, 2020): Thailand rocked by protests as prime minister refuses to step down
Bangkok Post (October 26, 2020): Provincial elections set for Dec 20
Helen Regan, CNN (October 19, 2020): Thailand’s government vows to protect the monarchy after weekend of unrest
Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono, New York Times (October 18, 2020): ‘We Have to Speak Out’: Thai Students Defy Protest Ban
Feliz Solomon and Wilawan Watcharasakwet, Wall Street Journal (October 18, 2020): Thailand’s Protests Shift Tactics, Influenced by Hong Kong
Randy Thanthong-Knight, Bloomberg (October 15, 2020): Why Protesters Are Back on the Streets in Thailand
Bangkok Post (October 9, 2020): Progressive Movement to contest at least 32 provincial elections
Pattaya Mail (October 7, 2020): Thailand to hold first local elections since 2014 in December
Dave Lawler, Axios (October 1, 2020): Thailand’s taboo-smashing protests: “No one knows where the limit is”
Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono, New York Times (September 24, 2020): Young Women Take a Frontline Role in Thailand’s Protests
Tassanee Vejpongsa, AP (September 20, 2020): Protesters in Thailand seek changes, elections
Charlie Campbell, Time (September 14, 2020): ‘Thailand’s Inconvenient Truth.’ Why This Billionaire Is Risking It All to Back Reform of the Monarchy
AP (September 3, 2020): Thai court revokes bail, jails activists who kept protesting
Zeeshan Aleem, Vox (August 9, 2020): Protesters across Thailand call for new elections following the arrest of pro-democracy activists
Marwaan Macan-Markar, Nikkei Asian Review (March 26, 2020): Thai election reveals new rifts opening in deeply polarized nation
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Updated March 27, 2021