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‘Do or Die’ for Democracy in Thailand’s Crunch Election

Supporters of various political parties hold placards as constituency candidates arrive for their registration for the upcoming general election, at the Thailand-Japan Youth Center stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, April 3, 2023.
Supporters of various political parties hold placards as constituency candidates arrive for their registration for the upcoming general election, at the Thailand-Japan Youth Center stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, April 3, 2023.

Thais go to the polls May 14 in an election pro-democracy parties say is critical for resetting the kingdom’s politics nearly a decade after the military and its establishment supporters seized power in a coup.

The election broadly pits pro-democracy parties, including the main opposition Pheu Thai and the youth-facing Move Forward, against conservative rivals, whose leading light is caretaker prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Prayuth, 69, is a former army chief who led a coup in 2014 as head of the military, which has used coups and court decisions to stay involved in the country’s politics for decades.

Prayuth’s critics say he has presided over nearly nine years of falling freedoms and soaring inequality, which have seen young pro-democracy activists chased through the courts, and the benefits of Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy shared among an increasingly narrow elite.

Nothing less than the future of the country is at stake on May 14, Kanphong Prayoonsak, a Move Forward candidate in a Bangkok district told VOA in early April.

“It’s do or die … it’s the old ways and powers versus change,” he said.

“If the old power does come back, the country will fall into chaos and political turmoil once again. We will enter an era of regression.”

Thailand Elections Seen as Pivotal Test for Democratic Rule
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His party wants to bring in sweeping reforms of Thailand’s economy and political structure, to remove the army from politics forever. His party is polling strongly – just behind Thailand’s biggest party, Pheu Thai.

Pheu Thai is the political machine of billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin lives in exile, as does his sister, Yingluck, also a former prime minister, after a 2006 coup also toppled her government.

Number crunching

Overall Thailand’s National Assembly has 750 members, although only members of the lower house, the House of Representatives, are up for election this year.

A majority of 376 from both the Senate and House of Representatives will be needed to form a government after the election and then elect a premier.

The electoral landscape is complicated, and experts say deliberately so to help the army keep one foot in power against pro-democracy opponents who have won every popular vote over the last two decades.

In the House of Representatives parties will compete in 400 constituencies and for a further 100 seats allocated according to the proportion of the overall vote each receives.

All 250 seats in the Senate, though, have been appointed by Prayuth’s government, and their terms will be up in May of next year.

That means he potentially needs just 126 House members’ support after the poll if the Senate backs him.

Prayuth, an arch-nationalist and royalist who sharply divides public opinion, is the prime ministerial candidate for the newly formed United Thai Nation Party.

He successfully survived large pro-democracy protests across 2020 and 2021, which for the first time raised open questions over the role and wealth of the monarchy, Thailand’s most powerful institution.

A court also ruled last year that he had not breached an eight-year limit in power, a criteria written into the constitution by his administration to prevent Shinawatra premiers serving for long.

“All I’ve ever done has been for the nation,” he told a crowd in southern Thailand on April 30.

“I’ve retired [from the army] for eight years now so I’m fully a civilian … but the army is also important, we can’t just not have it.

“We must pay back our nation if we were born in this country.”

On the conservative side of Thai politics he faces a potential challenge from Prawit Wongsuwon, another former army chief, aged 77, who served in Prayuth’s government, but stayed with the ruling Phalang Pracharat party.

He wants to be prime minister and has pitched himself as a compromise candidate, especially if Prayuth does not perform as well as he expects.

“Many might call me a dictator in disguise but I tell myself I might have not been clear in explaining about ‘my democratic soul’” he wrote on his Facebook page on April 21, adding “it has to be me” who bridges the conservative and liberal divide.

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul may also have a say in who enters the government as the head of the Bhumjaithai party, which has campaigned on the basis of its cannabis liberalization policy.

His party is expected to scoop up dozens of seats which may give him a deciding role in a government coalition.

High stakes for democracy

Pheu Thai leads the polls from the pro-democracy side.

The party is targeting a landslide of 310 House seats, which would put it in a commanding position to pull together a coalition for government.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter, Paetongtarn, is running as one of its three prime ministerial candidates.

But experts say the pro-democracy vote may be shared by the Move Forward Party, which has won the loyalty of under-35 voters, with its wider diagnosis of Thailand’s entrenched social and economic ills. Its platform includes decentralizing power, demilitarizing politics and tackling the country’s super-rich monopolies, which own large swaths of the economy.

It also wants to reform the royal defamation law, which has been used to charge scores of young pro-democracy protesters in recent years.

“I can actually see a glimpse of change from Move Forward,” said Atipat Seriniyompakorn, 30, a Bangkok-based phtographer, “I can see my future in their policies”.

Thailand's Young Pro-Democracy Activists Yearn for Change at Polls
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Given the divide, experts warn a return of Prayuth may tip Thailand back into crisis.

“We can expect to see the same pattern of crackdowns and persecution of activists calling for sweeping reforms to continue,” said analyst Napon Jatusripitak of the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“I also expect to see significant backlash against this government, especially if it is a minority one, from the supporters of political parties from the other side of the spectrum.

Over 52 million voters are eligible to vote in the May 14 polls.