After a long wait, Thais will finally head to the ballot boxes for the first election since a coup d’etat that ousted then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. While the country is no stranger to coup attempts, anticipation is still running high among Thais as the election slated for 24 March might be the first step in restoring democracy in the Southeast Asian nation that has been battered by intermittent political crises for the past 13 years. The question among many Thais also revolves around if the kingdom is able to break the vicious cycle of elections, civil unrest as well as military coups and become an economy front-runner in the region again.
With at least nine parties vying for 500 seats in the House of Representatives, several of them stood out among the rest as they have been touted as the ones most likely to lead the efforts to form a government. One of them is the pro-junta, Palang Pracharat party that has chosen incumbent prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-Cha as its candidate. It would have to rely on the government’s record for the past four years to attract voters though the idea of a military-influence leadership does not necessarily bode well with some. Another party that is also high on the list is the Pheu Thai party, which is aligned with ex-prime ministers Thaksin and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra. Although both of them remain exiled aboard, the Shinawatras continue to wield considerable influence particularly in the north and northeast. It also could receive backing from the Future Forward party, led by tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Last but not least, the Democrat Party under the leadership of ex-PM Abhisit Vejjajiva is also striking to make a comeback since the 2011 election loss to pro-Thaksin party.
Amidst all the enthusiasms, there are still concerns that the election might not necessarily be the end of Thailand’s long-running political turmoil. This is because no party is likely to hold a majority in the parliament and a coalition will need to be formed between the bigger parties and their smaller counterparts. Even if the parties manage to form a coalition, the ones that are not aligned to junta would still need to pass through another hurdle, that is to secure enough support from the 250-seat Senate or Upper House. The Thai Senate has effectively been under control of the military and winning a majority of the combined membership of both houses would likely be a very tall order if not impossible for these parties. This in turn will give a slight edge to the Palang Pracharat that only needs to form a coalition of 251 seats with the rest of the support coming from the Senate. Such scenario however could once again lead to a deadlock seen in the past and unrest might follow as ordinary Thais become impatient and head out to the streets to voice their opposition.
Although the overarching focus of the election has been toward restoring democracy, other issues such as economic growth and improvements of livelihoods are also likely to be played up by political parties during campaigning. Reforms on agriculture, labour and education sectors are also high on the agenda as most Thais are eager to see the country’s economy back on track after slowing down for several years. A National Institute of Development Authorities (NIDA) poll published in December 2018 said 62.64 per cent of respondents expect the country’s overall economic situation to improve following the election while a total of 72.56 per cent surveyed also wants elected leaders to solve the country’s economic woes and household debt.
As political parties gear up for campaigning, a great deal of attention will also be given to the military on how it intends to facilitate Thailand’s transition toward a more vibrant democracy. Its past tendency of intervening in politics also meant that Thailand could also end up becoming a military-guided quasi-democracy after the election. Nevertheless, the onus will of course be on the Thais themselves to come out and vote on 24 March in order to chart the country’s political future.
Election date: 24 March
Number of seats contested: 500 in the House of Representatives (251 needed for a majority)
Key parties and candidates (in parentheses):
- Phalang Pracharat (Prayuth Chan-o-Cha)
- Pheu Thai (Sudarat Keyuraphan)
- Democrat Party (Abhisit Vejjajiva)
- Future Forward (Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit)
- Liberal Party (Seripisut Temiyavet)
Timeline of key events:
22 May 2014: Pro-Thaksin group’s government overthrown in a military coup. Prayut Chan-o-Cha was installed as interim prime minister until an election is held
12 September 2018: King Mahavajiralongkorn endorses final bills needed to hold an election
11 December 2018: The military junta lifts ban on all political activities
23 January 2019: Election Commission confirmed that Thais will go to the polls on 24 March after a postponement from the original intended date i.e. 24 February
24 March 2019: Voting day across Thailand
GWS advice during Thai election period
- Remain aware for signs of increased tensions in your vicinity.
- Avoid all protests, political rallies and large public gatherings due to potential for escalation. Polling centres should also be avoided if possible due to risk of clashes between supporters of rival political parties.
- Be aware of the risk of traffic disruptions in your vicinity. Seek alternate routes if possible.
- Monitor local media outlets and Safefure regularly.
Chan Hoi Cheong