Thailand enacts laws that pave way for 2019 elections

Polls have to be called by May 5; opposition calls for ban on political activities to be lifted

Thai pro-democracy protesters shout slogans as they march toward Government House during a rally in Bangkok on May 22, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Thailand has inched closer to holding long-delayed elections, after new regulations on the polls were enacted on Wednesday.

The measures, signed into law by King Maha Vajiralongkorn and published in the Royal Gazette, govern the election of 500 MPs and the appointment of 250 senators. They require an election to be called between Feb 24 and May 5 next year.

The Stock Exchange of Thailand welcomed this step yesterday, with its index of equities rising 2.3 per cent, the most in two years. The baht rose 0.8 per cent against the US dollar to a two-week high.

Yesterday, the opposition also called on the junta to lift its existing ban on political activities.

After four years of military rule, few expect the junta to fully relinquish its hold on power.

Thailand's latest Constitution and election rules limit the power of large political parties, and prevent any one party from getting an overly large majority.

Voters will select MPs to represent them in 350 constituencies nationwide. Parties that may not win many of these seats will have a chance to fill the other 150 party-list seats in the 500-seat Lower House.

Critics say these rules are aimed at preventing a repeat of former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra's election victories in 2001 and 2005 on the back of populist pledges, which rattled the traditional elite and saw him ousted in a coup in 2006. His supporters regrouped and the Puea Thai party led by his sister Yingluck won the 2011 election, but her government was toppled in the 2014 coup.

All eyes are now on which party coup leader and ex-army chief-turned-Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will join for his next bid at the top job. Even if he does not take part in the election, he can be reappointed as prime minister as the Constitution allows for someone who is not a Member of Parliament to be picked.

The government has floated dates for the polls previously but postponed them. Last month, Mr Prayut said they are likely to be on Feb 24. He has also been travelling across the country of 69 million people on campaign-style trips.

Former senator Paiboon Nititawan, who is forming the People's Reform Party and plans to run, is among several politicians who have openly announced their support for Mr Prayut to stay on as premier after the election.

"Mr Prayut is the most suitable candidate," he told The Straits Times. "He can control the situation and provide a climate of calm."

Mr Paiboon also sees the post-election political landscape changing significantly: "The Puea Thai will no longer have a majority to form a one-party government like it used to."

His view is echoed by Mr Suthep Thaugsuban, former deputy leader of the Democrat Party, who is behind the recently formed Action Coalition for Thailand Party.

A group of former politicians from the Thaksin camp calling themselves Sam Mit (Three Friends) have also announced their support for Mr Prayut and been canvassing for him in the rural north-east, a major Thaksin base.

To gain a majority in Parliament, a group of parties would have to hold 376 out of the 750 seats in the Lower House plus Senate.

Said Thammasat University political scientist Prajak Kongkirati: "By design, it is impossible for any party to gain a majority, even though the Puea Thai still controls the largest political base in the country."

The senators will effectively be the "unelected biggest political party in the Parliament", he added.

But Dr Prajak said around seven million first-time voters could help shape the polls outcome. "We cannot truly ascertain the mood of the people ahead of the election," he said. "Only the ballots will tell."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2018, with the headline Thailand enacts laws that pave way for 2019 elections. Subscribe