Elections could oust Thai military after a decade in power: What to know

Elections could oust Thai military after a decade in power: What to know

BANGKOK — Millions of Thais will brave scorching temperatures Sunday to vote in an election that could return the country to civilian rule after a decade under the military.

The contest has seen the return of old characters like former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose youngest daughter Paetongtarn is a front-runner for prime minister, and the rise of new politicos like Pita Limjaroenrat, a Harvard-educated leader of a progressive movement that wants to curb the monarchy’s influence. Polling widely suggests that the opposition, led by Paetongtarn’s Pheu Thai party and Pita’s Move Forward party, will win a majority of votes. But that may not be enough to oust the military from power.

Led by retired general Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the military government has gone to great lengths to tilt the parliament’s eventual selection of a prime minister in its favor, including by giving itself the right to appoint the members of the upper house. Even if voters choose overwhelmingly to reject the military, many analysts and activists believe that Thailand’s conservative establishment — made up of the military, police and other elite groups loyal to the Thai monarchy — could find ways to manipulate the results.

Here’s what you need to know:

How will the election work?

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. The monarch, King Vajiralongkorn, is the head of state but exercises little direct influence over the government, which is led by the prime minister.

The prime minister is elected by a National Assembly, which consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives. After seizing control in a 2014 coup, Thailand’s military leaders gave the military the power to appoint all 250 members of the Senate, leaving voters with the ability only to elect members of the 5oo-member House.

Sitting senators, which include Prayuth’s brother and close aides, are expected to show overwhelming support for the military in this election, as they did in 2019, meaning that the opposition needs to sweep the House — winning 376 seats out of 500 — to have a shot at forming a government.

Who are the main candidates for prime minister?

Paetongtarn Shinawatra: The youngest daughter of populist politician and ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is one of three prime ministerial candidates for Pheu Thai, the opposition party likely to win the most votes in the election. A former real estate executive, the 36-year-old had little political experience until announcing her candidacy last year. Her famous last name has given her significant name recognition — she has consistently landed near the top in national polls — but also detracted from her legitimacy among those who worry she will become a proxy for her father. She was pregnant throughout most of her campaign and gave birth at the start of May.

Pita Limjaroenrat: The charismatic leader of Move Forward, a progressive opposition group that wants to curb the influence of the Thai monarchy, has surged to the top of polls in recent weeks, buoyed by strong support in Thailand’s urban areas. The 43-year-old, who has degrees from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked as a businessman and tech executive before winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 2019. If elected, he’s vowed to raise the minimum wage and amend the constitutional clauses that have given the military an advantage in the elections.

Prayuth Chan-o-cha: The incumbent prime minister surprised even some of his own supporters when he announced his intention to extend his tenure. A retired Army general and conservative hard-liner, the 69-year-old was among the leading orchestrators of the 2014 coup and has continued serving in the nation’s top post despite slipping popularity. Last year, he was briefly suspended from his role because of a court challenge alleging he had violated an eight-year term limit for prime ministers. As a candidate for the Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party, he’s sought to cast himself as a force for stability and continuity in Thailand.

Prawit Wongsuwan: Thailand’s deputy prime minister is pitching for a promotion as a candidate for the Palungpracharat party. Part of the original junta that seized control a decade ago, he has since distanced himself from Prayuth and could split the vote among conservatives, analysts say. At 78, he’s the oldest of the leading candidates, though he’s sought on the campaign trail to rebrand his image for a younger audience.

Anutin Charnvirakul: Thailand’s health minister, 56, is best known for engineering the country’s legalization of marijuana and leading Thailand’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. He’s head of the right-leaning Bhumjaithai Party, which doesn’t have as much influence as other parties but could play a decisive role in helping to form the ruling coalition. A savvy politician, Anutin has close personal relations with the royal family but is not as reviled by the country’s liberal voters as Prayuth or Prawit, and could emerge victorious as a middle-ground candidate, analysts say.

Which issues are dominating the election?

The rising cost of food and gas, or what Thai people call “mouth and stomach” issues, has been a top concern. With few exceptions, parties have promised big post-election handouts that many analysts say the country can’t afford. Thailand’s economic growth has lagged behind its neighbors in recent years, and the ruling government has come under criticism for failing to attract more investment from emerging sectors like tech.

More so than previous elections, this cycle has also called into question the legitimacy of some of Thailand’s most revered institutions, from the military to the monarchy. Move Forward has promised supporters that if elected, they will examine the Thai royal family’s sweeping powers to punish those that insult them — a taboo proposal only a few years ago.

The fact that such topics have been raised openly in debates and rallies has already made this election unprecedented, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

What are the implications for the region?

What ends up happening on polling day and in the weeks after will have far-reaching implications in Southeast Asia, where the United States and China have been jockeying for influence. Over the past decade, the military regime has tilted away from Washington and closer to Beijing. Analysts generally expect that the rise of a new government could help broker closer relations with the Biden administration, which has been courting other Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Indonesia.

If elected, opposition leaders have also said they would take a harder line against the military regime in neighboring Myanmar, which has been escalating its brutality against resistance fighters.

When will we know the results?

It depends. Preliminary results will be released at the end of Sunday but the election commission, which was appointed by pro-military lawmakers, can take up to 60 days to name the winner of each House seat.

In the 2019 election, both ruling and opposition parties declared victory the morning after polling day. After weeks of calculating votes using a complex formula, the commission announced that the opposition had fallen short of the seats it needed to form a government, drawing criticism from both opposition politicians and election watchdog groups, who accused the commission of manipulating the results.

Election commission chairman Itthiporn Boonprakong has said there will not be an extended delay this year.  » …
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