Close race likely for ruling coalition and opposition in key Thai by-election on Sunday

In a photo from Dec 14, 2019, supporters participate in a rally by the progressive Future Forward Party in Bangkok, Thailand. PHOTO: REUTERS

KHON KAEN - Another key by-election is taking place in Thailand on Sunday (Dec 22), barely two months after a similar poll saw the ruling coalition regain control of a seat held by the opposition, allowing it to further solidify its majority in Parliament.

Like in October, the poll on Sunday is seen as a rerun of the March general election.

Two of the main candidates in the by-election in the north-eastern province of Khon Kaen are Dr Somsak Khun-ngern from the Palang Pracharath, a pro-military party leading the ruling coalition, and Mr Thanik Maseeipitak from Pheu Thai, the biggest force in the opposition.

In March, Pheu Thai candidate Nawat Tohcharoensuk won in the constituency with 29,170 votes, 3,000 more than Dr Somsak. The narrow margin was surprising, considering that north-east Thailand is deemed as the main stronghold of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who founded the Thai Rak Thai party, the predecessor of the Pheu Thai.

The by-election was triggered after Nawat was disqualified as an MP in September when he was sentenced to death for masterminding a murder six years ago.

With a no-confidence parliamentary motion pending and the final reading of the annual budget Bill scheduled for January, the outcome of Sunday's poll will be crucial for both sides.

The governing coalition currently has a thin nine-seat majority in the 500-seat Lower House. It has 253 MPs as opposed to 244 for the combined opposition.

"I feel quite pressured as we need to hold our fort in this constituency. We can't lose," Mr Thanik told The Straits Times on the sidelines of a campaign rally.

A few thousand Pheu Thai supporters waved party flags and cheered loudly while listening to speeches made by Mr Thanik and other key party leaders at the rally on Thursday.

"I've been voting for Mr Thaksin's side for years. I really like his 30-baht (S$1.35) healthcare scheme," said Mrs Chumporn Suayree at the rally.

Interestingly, Mr Thanik's rival, Dr Somsak, is a former Thai Rak Thai executive who was banned from politics for 10 years when the party was dissolved in 2007 over electoral violations.

"I chose Palang Pracharath this time because I'd like to get out of the same old vicious cycle of conflict. I believe the party offers a compromise between the two political poles," he said, referring to the years of tension between supporters of Mr Thaksin and his sister, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and their opponents which have led to massive street protests and clashes.

The unrest culminated in a coup in May 2014. The March general election was seen as an attempt to return the country to democratic rule albeit under a Constitution approved by the military.

Capitalising on the fact that he represented the government, Dr Somsak's campaign has focused on continued government subsidies for farmers and the underprivileged.

"This government has helped us poor elderly people a lot with its welfare cards," said Mr Supat Sapumma, a 67-year-old farmer.

Many analysts say the ruling coalition will have more to gain if it wins in Sunday's poll.

"If Palang Pracharath wins this time in Khon Kaen, this penetration into the Pheu Thai's stronghold in the north-east can spark a new momentum in favour of the government," said Dr Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University.

"The razor-thin majority will remain a concern for the government until early next year, as the numbers of seats on both sides will keep changing for some time," he added.

Two more by-elections will be held next year.

On Tuesday, the opposition Future Forward Party - the third-largest party in Parliament after Palang Pracharath and Pheu Thai - sacked four of its MPs for repeatedly voting against the party in Parliament. It was not immediately clear which parties, if any, they would join following their sacking.

The future of Future Forward itself is in doubt with all its 60 MPs girding themselves for its possible dissolution as the Constitutional Court deliberates on two cases against it. Last month, party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was disqualified as an MP.

Correction note: An earlier version of the story misstated the name of the professor at Chulalongkorn University. This has been corrected.

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