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Thai Progressive Party is still short of the majority it needs to form a government

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The party that won the most seats in an election in Thailand does not yet know if they'll get to govern. Voters favored the progressive party. It's opposed to the military-backed rule of the past nine years. But with many parties represented, the progressives do not have an outright majority of seats to form a government. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The Move Forward Party's prime ministerial candidate is a good listener. Well, to NPR, at least.

PITA LIMJAROENRAT: As a big fan of Up First and Tiny Desk, it's really a good day for me today.

SULLIVAN: The charismatic 42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat is also a single dad with a 7-year-old daughter, a peripatetic past and a colorful resume.

LIMJAROENRAT: I was born in Bangkok, grew up in Hamilton, New Zealand, until high school and then Longhorns UT Austin in Texas. Back here I worked in investment banking at Merrill Lynch and then Boston Consulting Group and then the government house here in Thailand and then a dual degree from Harvard on public policy and MIT Sloan for business administration and then family business and then ran for office.

SULLIVAN: That was just over four years ago as part of the fledgling Future Forward Party led by another charismatic young leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The party finished a surprising third in the 2019 general election, its calls for change and reform of the military and the monarchy striking a chord with young voters in particular. That strong finish alarmed the conservative establishment, and Future Forward was dissolved by the royalist conservative-backed courts the next year.

LIMJAROENRAT: We were hitting the right notes so much that they felt like we were threatening the elites and we were challenging the status quo.

SULLIVAN: The party dissolved, its leadership banned from politics. It quickly rebranded as the Move Forward Party.

NAPON JATUSRIPITAK: Pita - he was already a prominent figure within the party due to his strong performance as an opposition MP, and that's the reason why he was selected to play a key role as a leader of the Move Forward Party.

SULLIVAN: That's Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak think tank in Singapore. He says Pita and Move Forward were competing with established parties with vast patronage networks and huge campaign war chests. Move Forward had neither, so it had to get creative.

JATUSRIPITAK: The Move Forward Party recognized early on the power of social media and adopted a robust digital strategy to connect with and mobilize supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SULLIVAN: Supporters at Move Forward rallies like this one, who use TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, voters Napon says practically live online.

JATUSRIPITAK: So online, these individuals serve as content creators for the party by engaging with its activities. They're not only given opportunities to interact with their candidates in ways that were not previously possible, but they're also transformed from passive supporters into active campaigners for the party and its candidates, even.

SULLIVAN: Move Forward ended up winning more seats than any other party, and Pita is now working furiously to form a coalition government with himself as prime minister. One of his biggest hurdles - the 250-member military-appointed Senate, which makes up a third of the votes in parliament. Most senators oppose Move Forward's call to amend the law against criticizing the monarchy, and without at least some of them, Pita will have a hard time winning the 376 votes he needs to become prime minister. And that's just one tool the establishment could use to thwart Move Forward and its allies. Again, Napon Jatusripitak.

JATUSRIPITAK: Even if they manage to do everything correctly, people anticipate a response from the conservative establishment, most likely in the form of judicial intervention.

SULLIVAN: He thinks the likely first step is the disqualification of Pita on trumped-up charges, just like Future Forward leader Thanathorn before him in 2019. Dissolving the party, he says, would be more dangerous. Chulalongkorn University political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak agrees.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: This time, if the same subversion is repeated with the dissolution of Move Forward, you'll see protests for sure because they're seeing the systems being rigged against them, against their future. We could be in a crisis by July, August if the vote is subverted systematically like we've seen in the recent past.

SULLIVAN: Nine years after staging its last coup, the military royalist establishment has failed miserably at the polls, but it still has its thumb planted firmly on the scale.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.