Thailand votes: Grand old party could be kingmaker in ballot

Thailand's former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva posing for a selfie with a supporter at a Democrat Party rally on Monday at Bangkok's Crystal Design Centre.
Thailand's former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva posing for a selfie with a supporter at a Democrat Party rally on Monday at Bangkok's Crystal Design Centre.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

BANGKOK • Thailand's oldest political party heads into Sunday's election with leader Abhisit Vejjajiva facing tough choices in the first polls since the military seized power in a 2014 coup.

Will Mr Abhisit's pro-business, pro-establishment Democrat Party join a new pro-military party in a coalition after the vote, likely extending the army's dominance of power?

Will the Democrats band together with a "pro-democracy front" to keep the army out of government - at the price of working with its bitter foe of 15 years: parties loyal to ousted populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra?

Or is there a third option, as Mr Abhisit argues?

One scenario could return the Oxford-educated Mr Abhisit to the prime minister's office, which he held from 2008 to 2011 after a court dissolved a pro-Thaksin government. "We will be the alternative in leading Thailand out of the last decade of troubles," the 54-year-old told Reuters.

Democrats have been at the centre of Thailand's turbulent politics since 2005, with some party members leading the anti-Thaksin "Yellow Shirt" protests against corruption that led to two military coups in a decade.

The military government has billed Sunday's election as returning South-east Asia's second-largest economy to civilian, democratic rule.

 
 
 

But critics say a new charter, overseen by the generals, enshrines military influence over politics.

Doubts that the army will give up power were heightened last month when a new pro-military party, Palang Pracharath, nominated junta chief and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led the 2014 coup, as its prime ministerial candidate.

Mr Abhisit this month said in a campaign video that he would not support Mr Prayut's staying on as prime minister, which he said would "breed conflict and is against the Democrat Party's principle that the people have the power".

He has also made it clear he would be loath to work with the main pro-Thaksin party, Pheu Thai.

The Democrats have long decried the Thaksin movement as corrupt and a threat to independent democratic institutions. "I don't want dictatorship and I don't want corrupt people," Mr Abhisit said. "Corrupt politicians provided the pretexts for the military to stage all the coups in the last 20 years."

The Thai Parliament has a total of 750 seats - 500 in the Lower House of Representatives, and 250 in the Upper House Senate. To win control, the target for political parties is 376 seats - 50 per cent of the 750 plus one seat.

But with the junta appointing all 250 members of the Senate, no single party is likely to secure the 376 magic number on its own.

Given that Palang Pracharath can count on the support of the Senate, it needs to win only 126 Lower House seats to form a government.

The parties opposed to a military role in government must win 376 seats in the Lower House, or three-quarters, to block the military from retaining control.

REUTERS

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2019, with the headline 'Grand old party could be kingmaker in ballot'. Print Edition | Subscribe