Thailand is preparing for a Sunday vote in its first general election since a 2014 military coup.
Nearly 52 million Thais are eligible to vote, with some 75 percent expected to go to the polls, according to Aim Sinpeng, an assistant professor in the Department of Government & International Relations at the University of Sydney, who said, "Turnout is usually high in Thailand."
Reflecting widespread interest in the general election despite limits on dissent, of the 2.6 million people who registered for early voting on March 17, 86.98 per cent of them turned up, according to Thai PBS.
The military government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had repeatedly delayed the general election, first tentatively set for 2015, which means many people have expectations, based on a buildup OF "wants, and aspirations, and hopes for themselves and the society, which aren't being realized … under this kind of authoritarian culture, which the military government has created," said Chris Baker, a historian who co-authored "A History of Thailand" with Pasuk Phongpaichit.
Key issues for voters include a sluggish economy —Thailand is Southeast Asia's second-largest economy after Indonesia — and growing inequality caused in part by a plunge in the world prices of commodities. The price of rubber, which supports one of every 10 people has fallen 65 percent since 2011. That happened against a faltering economy; Thailand has dropped 10 places on the World Economic Forum's global competitiveness index since 2007. That's the biggest decline among Southeast Asia's top economies, and globally, Thailand ranked 38 out of 140 countries last year, according to Bloomberg.
Somprawin Manprasert, the chief economist at Bank of Ayudhya Pcl, told Bloomberg, "Thailand can ill-afford another period of lagging behind from political disorder. I believe we've bottomed out as people realize we need to improve productivity."
Voters have choices — thousands of candidates represent dozens of political parties. New to the scene are the young voters, those between 18 and 24 years old, who "have grown up under military rule as they reached adulthood," said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus, at the University of New South Wales, Canberra and the Australian Defense Force Academy. He says these first-time voters, numbering 7 million or more, are looking for change, and in general, dislike military rule.
But the youth bloc's preference may matter little, as the military, acting as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) appointed drafters of a new constitution — the 20th in Thailand since 1932 — and curbed debates on the legislation after taking power in a 2014 coup, the 12th since 1932 — that paved the way for Sunday's vote.
Aside from the generational divide, there's a regional one among Thai voters. The north and northeast support parties affiliated with ousted populist Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, who each served as prime minister until deposed in military coups. There's widespread support for the Democrat Party in the south.
Sinpeng believes that the latest constitution ratified in 2017 structured elections to prevent a level playing field. "A number of key features of the constitution are quite non-democratic, and in fact reflect how the military can continue its political dominance going forward regardless of who's elected."
Under the new constitution, the 250-member Senate will be chosen by the NCPO. The 500-member House will be elected by voters. Of those seats, 350 members (MPs) will be directly chosen by the voters in their constituencies. The remaining 150 will be allotted to political parties using a formula based on total election turnout divided by 500. To win with full control, one party would need to gain at least 376 seats, which will be, according to experts, impossible.
The process, designed by the military to retain power, is expected to lessen the influence of larger parties while giving seats to many smaller parties, and forming a government will require the creation of a multi-party coalition.
The many parties running in the general election break-out into distinct groups. Here are some of the ones to watch.
The Palang Pracharat Party is pro-military. It named the current prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, as its candidate. He began his military career in the prestigious Queen's Guard, and became army chief in 2010. After the 2014 coup, he emerged as the acting premier, and the regime began cracking down on dissent.
The anti-military faction is led by the Pheu Thai Party which is the largest of three major Thaksin-leaning populist parties. Also in this cohort is the Future Forward Party, founded in 2018 by auto parts tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit who has been described by local media as a "billionaire peasant" after he said that while he may be a member of the 1 percent, he represents everyone else. At 40, he's something of a millennial darling.
The Democrat Party, one of Thailand's oldest, led by former prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva has been perceived as pro-business and pro-establishment. Although the party has been Thaksin's archrival, voters' growing frustration with the military has forced to Abhisit to vow not to support Prayut as prime minister.
"Once the election results come out, [these parties will] have leverage to bargain, to be part of either side of the political divide," said Sinpeng, predicting that the smaller parties will "make or break who's going to be in the government."
According to Thayer, that means "Thailand is likely to be governed by a coalition government of weak, medium-to-small political parties led by a prime minister who is not popularly elected."
"The new government will be constrained in what it can do" he added as senior or retired bureaucrats, high-ranking military officers, and well-connected wealthy businessmen appointed by the military junta that seized power will continue to exert power behind the scenes," Thayer said.
And, while the election will give legitimacy to Phalang Pracharat, which is backed by the military, Thayer suggested the upside will be that "for the first time in five years, political parties that oppose military rule will have legal status to register, to contest the elections, campaign, and have their representatives serve in the Lower House of Parliament."