Thailand's coup-empowered, U.S. trained military says it wants to guide the people, and the country, after most voters rejected the army's political domination.   Photo copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Liberal Pita Limjaroenrat, 32, won the most seats in Sunday's (May 14) nationwide elections, and is trying to form a coalition to become prime minister, possibly sharing power with a scion of Thailand's two convicted coup-toppled leaders, challenging the governing, putsch-empowered, U.S.-trained military.

The popularity of Mr. Pita and Paetongtarn Shinawatra in Parliament's 500-member House of Representatives faces harsh "screening" by the military's 250-seat appointed Senate which does not agree with the two civilians' policies or plans.

A prime minister is expected to be named during the next few months after political wrangling to form a coalition.

This Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation is closely watched and wooed by Washington and Beijing.

Thailand's friendly diplomatic, commercial, and military balancing act between the U.S. and China is expected to remain unchanged no matter who wins the election.

Early unofficial results indicated Mr. Pita and his liberal, youth-led Move Forward Party (MFP) scored big wins, appearing to outpace Ms. Paetongtarn's party.

After the polls closed, former technology executive Mr. Pita said he would discuss formation of a coalition with Ms. Paetongtarn.

Mr. Pita's MFP favors "demilitarizing" Thai politics, ending military conscription, and replacing the Senate's 250-appointees with elected politicians. 

Ms. Paetongtarn appeared more willing to compromise with the military.

Also displaying some victories in early results is another possible prime minister and coalition partner, Anutin Charnvirakul, who leads the Bhum Jai Thai (BJT) party -- famous mostly for legalizing cannabis last year.

A coalition combining the Parliament seats scored by Mr. Pita and Ms. Paetongtarn would benefit from BJT's additional support.

Mr. Anutin however strongly favors maintaining legalization, while Ms. Paetongtarn wants to restrict cannabis to medical use only instead of Thailand's newly flourishing, public, retail marijuana sales.

Mr. Pita appeared to support simply tightening public cannabis use in a way similar to alcohol. 

He reportedly gained support from cannabis users previously following Ms. Paetongtarn.

Ms. Paetongtarn entered politics after being CEO of a hospitality company dealing with five-star hotels and golf courses.

She recently birthed a baby boy.

If Mr. Pita and Ms. Paetongtarn are able to form a coalition government, the military would need to accept that majority vote, remove itself from several politically powerful positions, and allow Thailand's crippled democracy to evolve.

Since the 1930s, Thailand has suffered more than a dozen coups by armed forces refusing to do that, and instead rewriting the constitution more than eight times.

The military prefers to control the armed forces -- instead of allowing civilians to do so -- and control its officers promotions up the ranks.

"Last year was clearly the United States’ strongest in Thailand since the coup," said Benjamin Zawacki, Bangkok-based author of "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China".

"In February, in the Biden administration’s report on the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy -- the first to be released publicly from the White House -- Thailand was mentioned on page one, and the first-ever combined U.S.-Thailand Strategic and Defense Dialogue took place in Washington in May," Mr. Zawacki wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

During the next few months, the elected House and junta-appointed Senate are expected to struggle to form a new government and name a prime minister.

Some senators favor the reelection of relatively unpopular Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, 69, who heads his new United Thai Nation (UTN) party -- trailing poorly in the results.

Other senators want to upgrade his friendly rival Deputy Prime Minister and ex-general, Prawit Wongsuwon, to become prime minister.

Mr. Prawit, who leads his new Palang Pracha Rath Party (PPRP), had a long tenure in the military and is a powerful political wheeler-dealer.

"The military continues to pose a threat to the realization of true democracy," Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior columnist at Khaosod English media, said Sunday (May 14).

"In the end, no matter what today's results, it's clear that the election was never fair from the very beginning as 250-junta appointed Senators will take part, along with 500 elected Members of Parliament, to vote for the next prime minister," Mr. Pravit wrote.

"The former junta-camp has already bagged a third of the votes for the next prime minister in their pocket, long before the first voter cast his or her vote this morning," Mr. Pravit said.

Senator Seree Suwanpanont said May 13, "Senators, they don't necessarily vote the same way as the people.

"If the Senate has to vote the same way as the majority of Members of Parliament, we don't need the Senate.

"This Senate has to do screening," of all elected candidates, especially for the prime ministery, Mr. Seree said, according to the Bangkok Post.

Senator Chalermchai Fuengkhon also responded to political parties who gain a majority of votes, and said:

"Parties should not count on the Senate to support them.

"If they want to be the government, it is their job to gather 376 votes among themselves," Mr. Chalermchai said.

The military appears to oppose Ms. Paetongtarn mostly because she wants her father and aunt to return to Thailand without being arrested upon arrival and imprisoned.

Mr. Thaksin fled a two-year prison sentence for financial corruption, and dodged other pending charges.

Mr. Thaksin also wants $1.2 billion of his seized assets returned.

The military toppled Mr. Thaksin's five-year-old elected civilian government in 2006 for alleged corruption.

Prime Minister Prayuth was armed forces in 2014 when he led a coup ousting the government of Mr. Thaksin's sister, then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra -- Ms. Paetongtarn's aunt -- also for alleged corruption.

Mr. Prayuth's junta wrote a new, more politically restrictive, constitution which created Sunday's lopsided election, restricting voters to choose only Parliament's 500-member House of Representatives.

If a civilian coalition emerges, it could become vulnerable to the Constitutional Court which previously dissolved political parties and banned political leaders for violating the charter, even in a relatively minor, unrelated ways.

MFP's Mr. Pita is currently being targeted by critics who want the Constitutional Court to determine if his previous financial investments conflict with his political activity.

If a coalition party or prime minister is convicted and dissolved by the court, the coalition would collapse without a majority in Parliament.

Or the military could block a possible majority vote for a civilian coalition, and have the 250-seat Senate unite with pro-military parties in the House, and declare a minority government.

A majority opposition however could paralyze a minority government in Parliament by not supporting its legislation and demanding a "no confidence" vote.

About 52 million Thais were qualified to vote for a total of 70 parties to fill the House which later joins the Senate and names a prime minister -- expected months from now.

Responding to Thailand's latest public spasm of coup anxiety, Army Chief Gen. Narongpan Jittkaewtae told reporters on May 11:

"I can assure you that what occurred in the past, the chance is zero now," Gen. Narongpan said.

The army chief censored himself -- and asked all journalists to conform -- against uttering, publishing, or looking up the dictionary definition of the word "coup".

His linguistic demand made it difficult for him to say bluntly no coup would happen, and instead limited him to euphemisms.

"The term should not be used. It is not appropriate. I want reporters to remove it from your dictionary," the army chief said, according to the Bangkok Post.

Asked if the military deleted the word coup from its vocabulary, Gen. Narongpan replied, "Of course, it's removed.

"We have learned many lessons from the past," he said.

"We have reached a point where democracy has to go ahead. Everyone should be mindful and avoid what should not be done," the army chief said.

Gen. Narongpan is due to retire on September 30.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at