Thailand’s election day faces hopes of ousting junta generals from power – The Guardian


Young voters are calling for change, but the military-appointed Senate presents a hurdle to a non-establishment candidate becoming prime minister

Sun 14 May 2023 01:26 BST

Thais vote Sunday in an election that could result in the defeat of the military-backed leader who has ruled Thailand for nearly a decade.

But a skewed electoral system means the form of the new government is “very unpredictable,” analysts say, and it’s not clear whether the pro-democracy candidates will succeed in overthrowing the generals.

Thailand’s prime minister since 2014 has been Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who first came to power in a coup. A staunch royalist and conservative, he campaigned heavily for nationalism and warned that promised reforms would wreak havoc on opposition parties.

Young Thais are hoping for Pita Limjaroenrat to break the military-royalist hold on power

Polls suggest, however, that many voters do want change. Analysts expect Pheu Thai, the party linked to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to win the most seats. At the Pheu Thai Party’s last major rally on Friday, his daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, one of the party’s three prime ministerial candidates, told crowds that Sunday will be a “historic day” as Thailand “moves from junta rule to democratic rule.” “ will pass.

Move Forward, the most progressive opposition party, has also seen a surge in poll numbers recently after garnering strong support from young voters during the election campaign. Younger generations were drawn to their promise to demilitarize politics and break up monopolies. It is also the only party to promise reform of the lèse-majesté law, which would allow criticism of Thailand’s powerful monarchy to be punished with a 15-year prison sentence.

Sunday’s election is the first to be held after mass youth-led protests in 2020 shocked the establishment by demanding not only Prayuth’s ouster but also a curb on the monarchy’s influence and wealth – in a critique of an institution , previously considered untouchable. The campaign saw an unprecedented debate over the lèse-majesté law, a new fault line in Thai politics. “It’s the first time in history that every political party has had to speak out about its stance on this sensitive issue,” said Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

This year’s election is “not just a referendum on the military, but on the entire establishment,” he said, citing increasing questioning of the royal family’s role in society. The vote, Prajak said, “will be a crucial step for Thailand on the road to democracy.” But he added: “The path may not be smooth.”

The parties will compete for 500 seats in the House of Representatives on Sunday, but even if the opposition parties do well, they may not be able to take power. A future prime minister is voted on jointly by the elected lower house and the senate – whose 250 members were appointed by the military after the last coup.

To overcome this hurdle, parties like Pheu Thai will likely need to form alliances.

“Election results are easy to predict, but government formation is very unpredictable,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, adding that unlikely partnerships are still possible.

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Opposition candidates could also face extra-parliamentary moves that would keep them from power. A complaint was filed last week against Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of Move Forward, alleging that he owns undeclared shares in a media company. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Complaints have also been filed against Pheu Thai.

This year’s Pheu Thai party campaign was spearheaded by Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn, who has helped reignite nostalgia for her father.

However, at a rally on Friday night, her fellow candidate Srettha Thavisin, a real estate magnate, said he wanted to “serve as Thailand’s 30th prime minister and lead the people out of the darkness,” prompting speculation that he could be the party’s main candidate for leaders.

Thaksin, who remains a polarizing figure, is living in exile to avoid indictment. However, he has repeatedly said he would like to return – a prospect analysts say could create political instability.

For two decades, Thai politics has been marked by a split between the Pheu Thai party’s Shinawatra family and the conservative royalists. The power struggle between the two sides has led to protracted street protests and two military coups.


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