Thailand heading for elections


By May Thailand will go to general elections, the second since the 2014 coup. Former General Prayut seeks a third term, but he has split from the main party linked to the military and will have to contend with old allies and the third member of the Shinawatra family, as well as the young heirs of the 2020 protests

By Francesco Mattogno

There is a date that everyone in Thailand is waiting for a bit, but on balance it is just a formality: the day Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha dissolves parliament. From that point on, the election campaign will officially begin and a general election will be held within 45 days. This is a formality for two reasons. The first is that campaigning has already begun, as evidenced by the rallies around the country by the premier candidates. The second is that the natural end of the legislature is scheduled for next March 23.

Whether Prayut dissolves the chambers early or not, Thais will still be called to the polls by May. Behind the possibility of speeding up the process is a mere political calculation by the prime minister. According to the constitution, enacted by the military junta in 2017, in the event of an early dissolution of parliament, parties will be able to nominate for election even members with only 30 days of militancy, instead of the minimum 90 days that would normally be required. A very useful clause just for Prayut, who would then have more time to recruit new members in the party he himself joined in January, the Ruam Thai Sang Chart (or United Thai Nation, UTN).

Prayut's last few months have been eventful. The former army general, leader of the 2014 coup, has ruled (almost) continuously for 9 years. First as premier of the military junta until the 2019 elections, and then as prime minister elected by the military's Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP). The only time away from power was during his suspension from August 24 to September 30, 2022. That is, the days when the Thai Constitutional Court had to decide whether or not the former general had violated limit of 8 consecutive years in office for a prime minister. The limit is provided for in a provision of the 2017 constitution, but the court ruled it was not retroactive, giving Prayut the chance to remain premier theoretically until 2025.

In fact, with elections scheduled for 2023, if Prayut wins, he can serve as head of government for at most half of a natural four-year term. That is why the PPRP was ready to dump him and run Prawit Wongsuwan in his place: party leader, deputy prime minister, and one of the generals behind the 2014 coup. It was Prawit who served as interim prime minister during Prayut's suspension, and the once close relations between the two appear to have soured.

Unwilling to give up the appointment, Prayut joined the UTN, another pro-military party, becoming its premier candidate and taking several PPRP MPs with him. In the elections he will face Prawit himself, who, at 77, is meanwhile trying to clean up his image as a gray and violent general by wearing designer clothes, dispensing smiles and showing off on social media. In a Facebook post, he said he understood the importance of living in a democratic system, distancing himself from the coup to which he contributed. There are those, however, who believe that the rift between the two generals - incidentally denied by those directly involved - is a bluff, and that a post-election coalition between their respective parties is very likely.

Although they are apparently divided, the fact that the military may join forces is linked to a structural advantage. Since 2017, Thailand's parliament has consisted of a lower house of 500 members, elected by the people, and a 250-member senate appointed by the military. The prime minister is chosen by a majority vote of the MPs, including the 250 pro-military and pro-monarchist senators, from among those proposed by the parties (each party can nominate 3). Realistically, the opposition would thus need 376 seats of the chamber's 500 to elect one of its own to head the government.

However, the Senate's participation in the election of the premier is temporary. The rule will expire in May 2024, and these should be the last elections in which it will be applied. In the meantime, the road for the opposition parties seems to be able to be only one: overdo it. Those who stand the best chance of doing so are the Pheu Thai Party of the Shinawatra family. The party's candidate is Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of billionaire businessman Thaksin and niece of Yingluck, who were elected prime ministers with avalanches of votes in 2001 and 2011, respectively. Both her father and aunt were later removed by coups (in 2006 and 2014) on a series of charges against them. They have been living in exile ever since.

For many, behind the indictments were the monarch-military establishment's fears of the popularity of the two populist premiers. Paetongtarn, who is 36 years old and 7 months pregnant, now promises an end to poverty and a new era of social equality, talking about doubling the minimum wage and expanding health care. Polls put her firmly in the lead, especially in the northeast of the country (her family's stronghold), but Prayut and the UTN seem to be catching up.

Despite "sympathy operations," Prawit, on the other hand, appears far behind. Equally in crisis is the historic Democratic Party, Thailand's oldest party (monarchist-conservative), whose leadership ahead of the elections is still unclear. The Democrats are part of the governing coalition along with the PPRP and the Bhumjaithai (BJT), which is, however, in the opposite position from its two allies. Led by the current health minister and deputy prime minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, the BJT's popularity is growing. It has picked up dozens of MPs from other parties in recent months, and is expected to become a surprise in the elections due to the support it enjoys in northern Thailand.

Then there is the Move Forward Party, whose support base is not regional but generational. The de facto heir of Future Forward-a party dissolved in 2020 by a Constitutional Court ruling and later transformed into the extra-parliamentary Progressive Movement-Move Forward brings together much of the youth belonging to the democratic movements of the 2020 protests. Its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat (42), says he is ready to work with Pheu Thai in an eventual coalition government that would oust pro-military parties from power. The goal would then be to write a new constitution and hold a referendum to approve it within center days. It is hard to know if that is also what Pheu Thai, which so far has never officially denied the possibility of allying instead with Prawit's PPRP at closed polls, wants. A rumor that has taken hold in recent weeks.

In 2019, Pheu Thai's paper victory (with Future Forward's third-place finish) had been overturned by the parliamentary mechanisms for appointing the prime minister. Between party and candidate disqualifications, according to Asian Network for Free Elections, "all stages of the [2019] election process were influenced to ensure a result that was not too harsh for the ruling establishment." One wonders how much things may change in 2023.

The new electoral system, approved in 2021, increased the number of seats to be allocated by the majority method (from 350 to 400), leaving only 100 for proportional. A condition that disadvantages small parties in the vote redistribution phase. The Election Commission, in addition to announcing an "anti-disinformation" collaboration with TikTok, has decided that it will not publish the vote count in real time. Thus the first official results will come on election night. "It is a method prone to being rigged," said a former election commissioner. That is also why 100,000 volunteers are expected to be mobilized on Election Day to register votes independently.

Meanwhile, regular parliamentary sessions are suspended. In the last House debate, the opposition accused Prayut of leaving Thailand in a "pitiful state" because of his poor management of the economy (which grew by only 2.6 percent in 2022). The prime minister was then accused of corruption, cronyism, and using the lese majesty law and anti-Covid measures to suppress the 2020-21 democratic protests. Also weighing on him are the skids in the country's international deployment, which is ambiguous in its ties to the military junta government in Myanmar and on its condemnation of Russia's war in Ukraine, as well as growing closer to China.

Considerations from which Prayut defended himself by mentioning all the good things his administration would do, pledging to cite data and percentages on infrastructure projects, Covid contagions, welfare. "I must ensure continuity, I will reshape the country for the better within two years," he had declared in January. Even this, beyond the formalities, means he is already on the campaign trail.

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