Everything you need to know about Thailand's election

A woman casting an early vote for the upcoming Thai election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 17, 2019.
A woman casting an early vote for the upcoming Thai election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 17, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Thailand goes to the polls on Sunday (March 24), its first general election in eight years.

About 51 million Thais aged at least 18 are eligible to vote. Eighty political parties will compete for 500 seats in the House of Representatives, while 250 senators will be chosen largely by the military junta. Voting will start at 8am and end at 5pm.

Interest in the election is at fever pitch, judging by the droves who turned out to cast their ballots in early voting last Sunday (Mar 17), and those who attended the final rallies on Mar 22.

1) How does the election work:

The rules have been tweaked to decrease the influence of big parties which makes this election somewhat complicated. In simple terms, the basic aim of each party trying to form government is to control 376 seats (50 per cent +1) from both chambers. Because the military junta largely appoints all 250 senators, parties aligned to it can gain control by winning as little as 126 seats in the lower house.

Who are the main players?

Sunday's poll pits broadly parties allied with Mr Prayut against parties allied with the Shinawatra siblings. The latter's Pheu Thai Party and its earlier iterations have won every national election since 2001. But some parties, like Future Forward Party, have opposed the return of Mr Prayut without having clear links to the Shinawatras.

The Shinawatra clan

Pheu Thai Party remains popular, especially among rural voters and farming communities in the stronghold north and northeastern regions. Supporters say they will remain loyal to the political faction that has rolled out such policies as universal healthcare, debt relief and rice subsidies for farmers when in power.

 

New election rules drawn up by the military government limit the dominance of big political parties. In response, Pheu Thai loyalists have splintered into smaller parties. Fifteen candidates in the pro-Thaksin Pheu Chart party have legally changed their names to Thaksin or Yingluck to stay on top of the game.

Go deeper:

Thailand election: 'Thaksin' wannabe hopes for poll victory

Thai election crucial in different ways to rivals

Ex-ruling party Pheu Thai still popular with rural voters, downplays Thaksin links

2) Prayut and his allies

But the pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party also presents an attractive alternative with its offers of free broadband Internet access to remote villages, as well as welfare cards for low-income earners.

 
 

With the Constitution design on this side, Mr Prayut is very likely to remain as prime minister after the March 24 polls. He has been trying to portray a softer side, shedding his gruff, no-nonsense "military man" persona for one that is more affable and informal.

After touring around Thailand for months, Mr Prayut finally took the stage at the final Palang Pracharath rally on Friday (March 22) asking people to vote for him.

Meanwhile, one of his close colleagues and powerful army chief General Apirat Kongsompong has warned against stirring resentment against the military.

3) The others

The Democrat Party, Thailand's oldest political party and a runner-up in the 2011 election, is touted to be a kingmaker in this election. Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has said he would not support the return of Mr Prayut but that position has not been endorsed by the party. His party may eventually join Palang Pracharath Party to form a governing coalition.

 

Waiting in the wings too is medium-sized Bhumjaithai Party led by Anutin Charnvirakul. Touting eye-catching policies like liberalisation of marijuana cultivation and free online learning, it is also expected to eventually join the governing coalition.

The royal surprise

Perhaps the most dramatic turn so far in this election took place on Feb 8, when Thaksin-linked Thai Raksa Chart Party nominated Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya as its prime ministerial candidate. Her nomination was vetoed just hours later by her younger brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

 

Thai Raksa Chart Party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court on Mar 7 for being "hostile to the democracy with a constitutional monarchy".

4) What are the key issues

The economy and bread and butter issues are among key issues for voters in this election. While Thailand's gross domestic product, private consumption and private investment have expanded, household debts and inequality remain high.

Palang Pracharath Party, however, insists that better economic fortunes can only come when with stability and continuity.

 

Thais are one of the world's top users of social media. Pheu Thai has an ace in the form of Dr Chadchart Sittipunt, one of its prime ministerial candidates and a former transport minister, who emerged as an Internet sensation after a picture of him walking barefoot to a local temple and giving alms to monks was shared online. Online memes of him as Incredible Hulk are common.