Thailand: Ex-Junta Leader Prayuth On Hot Seat In General Election
By Harry Pearl
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha faces the toughest challenge of his political career in Thailand’s general election on Sunday that many Thais hope will end nearly a decade of pro-military rule.
Although surveys point to the opposition winning at the polls, no party is expected to capture a clear parliamentary majority. That means the outcome likely will be determined by post-electoral horse trading, with a junta-appointed Senate playing a key role in choosing who will be the next prime minister, analysts said.
“The election has become a referendum on Gen. Prayuth’s tenure as prime minister,” said Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow in the Thailand Studies Program at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
The 2023 electoral race has shaped up largely as a contest between the political dynasty of the Shinawatras and the military, which twice toppled governments headed by family members.
Opinion polls last week put Thailand’s main opposition parties well ahead of those in the military-backed ruling coalition.
Pheu Thai, led most visibly by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the 36-year-old daughter of self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is the frontrunner in polling, followed by the progressive Move Forward Party.
“Depending on the results, this could signal a transformation of the political system from a military regime under democratic guise to some other arrangement,” Napon said.
Prayuth’s last dance?
For the past nine years, the military has cast a shadow over the country, cracking down on democratic freedoms and presiding over an economy that the World Bank said last year was the most unequal in East Asia and the Pacific.
Observers predict that this election could be the last stand for Prayuth, 69, a staunch royalist who has ruled since 2014 – first as the junta chief and later as a prime minister following the 2019 general election.
In December, Prayuth quit the ruling Palang Pracharath Party to form a new party, the United Thai Nation Party, which is competing against PPP in the polls. His deputy prime minister and fellow retired Army general, Prawit Wongsuwan, is vying against him as a potential nominee for PM.
Although he has survived several confidence votes in parliament, the May 14 election may mark Prayuth’s end as prime minister, analysts say. Even if he does become Thailand’s leader again, constitutional term limits would require him to leave office in 2025.
Speaking at a secondary school in Nakhon Sri Thammarat, 885 km. (550 miles) south of the capital Bangkok, Prayuth on Thursday touted his experience leading the country.
“We have been in office for a long time, so we know problems – and I’ve been successful in fixing them,” he told a crowd of about 1,000 people at the Chauat School.
Roughly 52 million of Thailand’s 65 million population are eligible to vote for a 500-seat House of Representatives for the next four years.
Campaigning has been a battle of populist pledges, such as easing living costs, increasing the minimum wage, providing debt relief and improving public services.
While the largest electoral fault line appears to be whether voters are pro- or anti-regime, it has also highlighted a generational rift.
Young voters in particular are eager for change, including reforming the constitution, military conscription and Thailand’s strict royal defamation law – policies pushed most heavily by Move Forward.
“I chose Pheu Thai for the constituency MP, but elected Move Forward for the party-list MP,” Vichida Boonsaterm, 22, a university student in Chiang Mai, told BenarNews. “I want to see a new generation running the country.”
Prasit Chonprathan, a civil servant in Bangkok, expressed concern that a new government could cause turmoil.
“I’m fine with my status as a government official – things are settled,” the 59-year- old said, adding she is likely to vote for the Bhumjaithai Party, which is part of the current government.
When asked Thursday about the chance of another coup, Army Gen. Narongpan Jittkaewtae said the military would accept the election results.
An uneasy coalition
Pheu Thai, the party backed by the Shinawatras, is on track to win the most seats in the House of Representatives, followed by Move Forward, the youth-oriented party led by Harvard alumnus Pita Limjaroenrat, 42.
A poll by the Nation media group last week estimated that Pheu Thai could win as many as 247 of the 400 constituency seats up for grabs.
Under Thailand’s proportional representation system, another 100 are determined by party-list votes.
But a total of 250 senators – all hand-picked by Prayuth’s administration – will also vote with Parliament’s lower house to elect the prime minister, so a party must win at least 376 of the 500 seats available to secure a majority.
“How large a majority Pheu Thai is able to win could play a role in determining whether or not the senate is able to block a Pheu Thai government from forming,” said Ken Mathis Lohatepanont, a Thai political science researcher at the University of Michigan.
Both opposition parties have ruled out working with the PPP or the United Thai Nation Party in the lead up to the election.
But bickering between the two opposition parties has increased in recent weeks, especially as Pita has emerged as the country’s popular prime ministerial candidate.
In any case, Pheu Thai will not be able to form a government alone – possibly leaving it with no choice but to reach across the aisle if Move Forward’s progressive politics are too difficult to handle, according to some analysts.
“If Pheu Thai wins big and they can’t form a government with the Move Forward Party or others, it seems likely they might make use of Palang Pracharath,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University.
Meanwhile, the possible return of Paetongtarn’s father Thaksin, a billionaire businessman and populist prime minister who was ousted by the military in a 2006 coup, has added to election intrigue in recent days. Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008 after being sentenced to 12 years on four different charges.
Paetongtarn said in January that her father could find his own way home and did not need the help of Pheu Thai. But the 73-year-old’s comments on social media just days out from voting have put his plight back into the campaign.
On Tuesday, he again expressed his desire to return home from Dubai by July, before his birthday, to see his grandchildren. Earlier this month, Paetongtarn gave birth to a baby boy and resumed campaigning a few days after he was born.
“It has been nearly 17 years since I was separated from my family. I am already old,” Thaksin wrote on Twitter.
Nontarat Phaicharoen and Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok and Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report.