Thailand's long-awaited election could throw up surprises

Thailand heads to the polls on March 24 to elect a new government. The Straits Times finds out what Thais expect from their new leaders.
A Thai voter cast her ballot during advance voting of the general election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 17, 2019.
A Thai voter cast her ballot during advance voting of the general election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 17, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - Surrounded by thousands of supporters chanting "Pracharath! Government!" at Palang Pracharath Party's final election rally on Saturday (March 23), party leader Uttama Savanayana declared on stage: "Lung Tu is not a choice. He is the only way for us."

Thais go to the polls on Sunday (March 24) largely expecting Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, whose nickname is Lung Tu, or Uncle Tu, to come back as premier. Beyond that, however, all bets are off.

The permutations of power are numerous, say analysts, and the prospects for long-term stability not so clear.

The former coup leader and retired army chief has many things working in his favour.

A 250-seat Senate mostly handpicked by the ruling junta guarantees him the backing of one-third of the future parliament.

A new, more proportional election system limits the number of seats that large political parties can win.

State agencies have cleared the path for his transition from military chief to politician, even as other high-profile opponents seem to be burdened with some legal infraction of sorts.

 
 
 

However, if the Palang Pracha- rath, the new, pro-military party that has nominated him for premier, does not win enough seats in the 500-member Lower House, it could mire the country in prolonged coalition negotiations. Mr Prayut may end up heading a minority government, facing the prospect of frequent deadlock.

"Until... the parliament meets to select a prime minister, you cannot form a government even if you have 251 seats in the Lower House," says King Prajadhipok's Institute political scientist Stithorn Thananithichot. If talks drag on, it might even take up to the end of this year to select a prime minister, he warns.

Mr Harrison Cheng, associate director of global risks consultancy Control Risks, says that strong signs of victory by the former ruling Pheu Thai party "could prompt further meddling".

"This could take the form of Election Commission decisions to invalidate Pheu Thai wins in constituencies, ban their candidates from politics and conduct revotes," he wrote in a recent note. "Even if the military accepts the reality of a Pheu Thai-led winning coalition, it would be tempted to delay the formation of a new government."

Pheu Thai is linked to self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a bedevilled figure among royalist military factions who commands the loyalty of many upcountry voters even though he has been living abroad since 2008.

Since the 2014 coup that ousted the Pheu Thai government, much effort has gone into creating a legal environment that would thwart its comeback. One can see its effects clearly during campaigning.

Despite the searing summer heat, some Pheu Thai candidates were afraid to distribute even drinking water at their open-air village rallies, for fear of being accused of trying to bribe voters.

Yet the election still managed to spin a few surprises.

Pheu Thai's sister party, Thai Raksa Chart, roiled the Kingdom when it tried to nominate Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, as prime minster on Feb 8.

It earned a swift and stiff rebuke from the monarch, and a court order to dissolve the entire party.

This setback for Pheu Thai gave a tailwind to the youthful, progressive Future Forward Party which has taken a strident stance against military influence from day one.

Pundits speculated that the two parties might strike a pact. Attempts by the now defunct Thai Raksa Chart to channel its supporters to like-minded parties like Future Forward were met by an immediate probe by the Election Commission.

Yet, on its own, Future Forward climbed up in opinion polls, surprising even sceptics who thought its appeal to young social-media savvy voters had little resonance among the grassroots.

Its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit told The Sunday Times: "We are totally independent. We have our own dreams. We have our own ambitions."

 
 
 
 

That message has gone down well with many first-time voters in this election, whose numbers have ballooned to some seven million because the last election was held in 2011.

Untainted by the bitter experiences that have entrenched earlier generations in Thailand's deep political divide, they seek new perspectives.

"This discourse of 'loving Thaksin' or 'hating Thaksin' does not affect them," Dr Stithorn told The Sunday Times. "They are open to any ideology or person, if the party can impress them."

As a result, Future Forward has emerged as a potential kingmaker alongside the older and more established Democrat and Bhumjaithai parties.

Thais are clearly eager to vote. On March 17, over two million voters endured snaking jams and stifling queues to cast an early vote for this election, raising expectations that the turnout today will hit a new high.

On Saturday, as the clock wound down to the official end of campaigning at 6pm, political parties hit the streets of Bangkok in convoys making a last-ditch call for support. Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva emerged from a Starbucks café in Siam Square and was accosted by hordes of fans seeking selfies.

Elsewhere, in the remote corners of Thailand, ballot papers were sent to voting centres by helicopter.

Some candidates have resorted to lavish promises involving a minimum wage and agricultural aid.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Viengrat Nethipo contends that many voters have by now tuned these pledges out in search of something more fundamental.

"The status of this election is different. A lot of people are really voting to change society. Policy is not their top priority as they want to topple the military regime," she said. "This would not have been the case had it been a free and fair election."

• Additional reporting by Arlina Arshad