May 15, 2023

Welcome back to Axios World.

  • Tonight's edition (1,728 words, 6½ minutes) starts with Sunday's big elections in Thailand and Turkey, before checking in on the latest from Ukraine and wishing Bobi a very happy birthday.

Tell a friend to subscribe.

1 big thing: Radical reformers win shock victory in Thailand

Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat (second from right) leads a victory parade today. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images

Thai voters made clear in Sunday's election that they want change. The question is now whether the military-aligned establishment will let them have it.

Why it matters: Sunday's result was a political earthquake, not just because pro-democracy parties trounced pro-military ones, but also because the progressive party that finished first, Move Forward, campaigned on the once-taboo topic of reforming the monarchy.

  • Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat, a former business executive and relative newcomer to politics who studied at Harvard and MIT, introduced himself today as "the next prime minister of Thailand."
  • The twin pillars of Thailand's establishment, the military and the monarchy, have the power to block him. Thailand has seen 12 successful coups since 1932, and parties or candidates have frequently been disqualified from holding office even after elections were held.

But such an intervention would risk "major street violence" and create "an incredibly unstable situation," says Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • "Thailand is the only upper-middle income country that regularly has coups," Kurlantzick tells Axios. "Young Thais are tired of the economy and politics being stuck in this archaic past, run by generals and kings."

The big picture: Before Sunday's shock result, the election had been billed as a showdown between the military and the Shinawatra political dynasty, represented by the Pheu Thai party.

  • Parties associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had won the most seats in every election since 2001, but were repeatedly elbowed out of power by the coup-prone military.
  • This time, Thaksin's daughter Paethongtarn Shinawatra was on the ballot, facing off against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a 2014 coup and retained power after the 2019 election. His popularity has since collapsed.

Meanwhile, massive pro-democracy protests broke out in 2020, with student leaders demanding reform not just of the military, but also of the monarchy.

  • That was unprecedented in a country where lèse-majesté laws mean criticizing Thailand's king can result in jail time. Dozens of protesters remain in prison.
  • In this election, Pheu Thai stuck to its pitch of lifting up lower-income voters but avoided the reform proposals that had energized the youthful protesters.
  • "Pheu Thai fought the wrong war, the populism war that it already won. Move Forward takes the game to the next level with institutional reform. That's the new battleground in Thai politics," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told Reuters.

By the numbers: Move Forward won an estimated 151 of the 500 lower house seats, nearly sweeping the capital, Bangkok. Pheu Thai won 141. Pita announced today that they'll try to form a government with four smaller parties, bringing the bloc's total to 309 seats.

  • That clear majority could nonetheless be insufficient because a new constitution brought in under Prayuth's junta gave 250 military-appointed senators a vote on prospective prime ministers. If the Senate votes overwhelmingly against Pita's coalition, it would be rejected.
  • But Prayuth's party and another military-backed party only won a combined 76 seats.
  • Even if the pro-military bloc gets other parties onside, it could only cobble together a very weak minority government. That is, unless it enticed Pheu Thai to join forces, though that currently looks unlikely.

What they're saying: Paethongtarn Shinawatra congratulated Pita and said she expects their parties to be able to work "smoothly together."

  • Prayuth said he respects "the democratic process and the election results," a message that's undercut somewhat by his recent history as a coup leader.
  • For his part, Pita said there would be "a hefty price to pay for someone who’s thinking of abolishing the election results or forming a minority government," adding: "I don’t think the people of Thailand would allow that to happen.”

What's next: Thailand's Election Commission has 60 days to confirm the results, during which time Pita will likely work to solidify his coalition, while the other major players will plan their next moves.

2. Erdoğan in the driver's seat in Turkey

Erdoğan greets supporters on election night. Photo: Burak Kara/Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan outperformed the polls and nearly won Sunday's election outright.

Why it maters: After winning 49.5% of the vote in the first round, versus 44.9% for opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Erdoğan is the clear front-runner to win the May 28 runoff and extend his two decades in power.

  • Right-wing nationalist Sinan Oğan won 5.2%. Many of his voters may drift to Erdoğan in the second round.
  • Oğan said he would only consider endorsing Kılıçdaroğlu if the opposition leader promised not to make any concessions to a pro-Kurdish party. However, Kılıçdaroğlu needs Kurdish support to have any chance of victory.
  • Erdoğan's bloc is also poised to win a parliamentary majority. That's another deflating result for the opposition bloc, which had seemed so confident and unified heading into election day. Still, Kılıçdaroğlu insists he'll win in two weeks.

Turnout was a remarkable 89%.

  • Election observers from the OSCE said the election was competitive but Erdoğan had unfair advantages, in particular in media coverage. Erdoğan allies control most of Turkey's media.
  • Erdoğan remains a hero to his loyal base of more conservative and religious Turks, though his critics accuse him of mismanaging the economy and centralizing power in his own hands.

3. Global news roundup

A girl in a tuk tuk evacuating her village in Myanmar's Rakhine state ahead of Cyclone Mocha. Photo: Sai Aung Main/AFP via Getty Images

1. Cambodia's main opposition party has been banned from an election in July, meaning dictator Hun Sen will again run virtually unopposed.

2. China sentenced 78-year-old U.S. citizen John Shing-Wan Leung to life in prison today on spying charges, Axios' Han Chen writes.

3. Cyclone Mocha lashed Myanmar's Rakhine state with devastating winds and heavy rain, killing at least six people and causing extensive damage, Axios' Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath writes.

4. Voters in the Indian state of Karnataka delivered a rare landslide victory for the Congress party and defeat for the ruling BJP, though it's unclear whether that success can translate to the rest of the country.

5. Kenyan President William Ruto apologized to Kenyans for the authorities' failure to stop more than 200 people from dying in a Christian starvation cult, a story that has gripped the country since mass graves started being discovered in April.

6. Today marks one month since fighting broke out between Sudan's army and the rival Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The fighting is raging on despite cease-fire talks. At least 900,000 people have been displaced, and 200,000 have fled the country.

Bonus: Where in the World?

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Today's theme is bays and gulfs in U.S. history: I give you the event, you name the relevant gulf or bay.

  • If you suspect this slightly offbeat theme is a sign I'm running out of quiz ideas, well...
  1. It put the Gulf in First Gulf War
  2. It gave its name to a Vietnam-era Resolution
  3. It was the site of a failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba
  4. It was polluted during the massive 2010 BP oil spill
  5. The U.S. operates a detention camp here
  6. A pivotal Revolutionary War battle was fought near the mouth of this bay in 1781

Scroll to the bottom for answers.

4. Ukraine claims advances around Bakhmut as Zelensky tours Europe

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Ukraine President,Volodymyr Zelensky today at Chequers. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

The head of Ukrainian ground forces hailed recent advances around Bakhmut  — Ukraine's most significant offensive operations in six months — as a sign that Ukrainian forces can "move forward and destroy the enemy even in extremely difficult conditions."

Why it matters: The Ukrainian push around Bakhmut comes as Kyiv prepares to launch a broader counteroffensive.

  • President Volodymyr Zelensky has been touring European capitals to rally support and secure new weapons pledges.
  • The U.K., which recently provided long-range missiles for the first time, announced today that it will also send drones and train Ukrainian pilots to fly fighter jets.

Zoom in: The fate of Bakhmut holds major symbolic significance for both sides, which have suffered thousands of casualties in what is now the longest battle of the war.

  • Some Western officials openly wondered why Kyiv insisted on holding out in a relatively minor city for so long.
  • Ukraine's military now claims it has inflicted far heavier losses on Russian forces and bogged them down in Bakhmut while laying the groundwork for the broader offensive. "We lured the enemy into a Bakhmut trap,” a military spokesperson said, per WSJ.

More Russia-Ukraine headlines:

  • The latest leaked Pentagon file posted to Discord and reported by WaPo includes a claim that Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin offered to provide details on Russian troop positions if Ukraine pulled back from Bakhmut. The Kremlin called it a "hoax."
  • Russia's Kommersant newspaper reports that two Russian fighter jets and two military helicopters were shot down on Saturday near the Ukrainian border. Russia, for its part, said it shot down a British-supplied Storm Shadow missile.
  • Beijing's new special envoy for the war in Ukraine is expected to visit Kyiv tomorrow.

5. Data du jour: World surviving stronger dollar

Data: YCharts; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: YCharts; Chart: Axios Visuals

Last year, there were plenty of doom-and-gloom warnings about how the Fed's turbocharged interest rate hikes would tip the world into a recession, Axios Macro's Courteney Brown writes.

Breaking it down: A strengthening dollar effectively induces inflation abroad, since dollar-denominated imports become more expensive in local currency terms.

  • It can also make it harder for emerging market economies that borrow in dollars to service those debts.

State of play: Some countries are struggling, but the "super dollar" doom spiral hasn't played out.

  • Reasons include rate hikes elsewhere in the world that limited capital flight to the U.S., and higher commodity prices that allowed export-heavy countries to bring in more dollars.

6. One fun thing: Happy birthday to a very old dog

Bobi at 30. Photo: Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images

Around 100 people gathered in a village in rural Portugal on Thursday for a 31st birthday party. For a dog.

  • Bobi, a purebred Rafeiro do Alentejo, has been declared by Guinness World Records to be the world's oldest pup.
  • Bobi's owner says he eats only human food and has roamed freely through nearby forests throughout his life, though movement is harder now and he seemed to find his big party tiring, per AP.

I'll be honest, I have my doubts about Bobi's age. But I'd take 29 more years with my little terrier.

7. Stories we're watching

Afghan girls attend an open-air school in Nangarhar province. Photo: Shafiullah Kakar/AFP via Getty Images

  1. Experts push for more high-skilled immigrants to compete with China
  2. Scoop: Blinken considering Shapiro for Abraham Accords point person
  3. Inside a harrowing journey to U.S. border
  4. Record 71.1 million people are internally displaced
  5. UN marks Palestinian Nakba for first time in high-level meeting
  6. Cease-fire in Gaza
  7. IRS bolsters Ukraine's hunt for sanctions evaders

Quoted:

"Mr Stoegmueller... said another passenger remarked that when other countries had technical problems, it involved the air conditioning breaking down. 'In Austria, the technical problem is Hitler.'"
— The BBC quoting Austrian MP David Stoegmueller, who was aboard a train when a recording of Adolf Hitler was played over the intercom.

Answers: 1. Persian Gulf; 2. Gulf of Tonkin; 3. Bay of Pigs; 4. Gulf of Mexico, 5. Guantanamo Bay; 6. Chesapeake Bay