By Pimuk Rakkanam and Nontarat Phaicharoen
Voting was underway Sunday (local time) in Thailand’s first general
election since a military coup in 2014, with Prime Minister Prayuth
Chan-o-cha aiming to transform himself from junta chief to elected
The long-promised “return to democracy” came after what analysts described as a series of strategic steps taken by the junta to prevent anti-military parties from winning power.
“I hope everyone will come to vote today according to your right,” Prayuth told reporters after casting his ballot at the Phyathai polling station in Bangkok. “Because everyone wants democracy. Then [you] must use the right way to a transparent election, to develop the country.”
On the eve of the vote, King Maha Vajiralongkorn issued a message citing a speech delivered by his late father in which the revered monarch said he worried about national security, and advised listeners to “prevent bad people from grabbing power.”
“No one could make everyone good. Maintaining national peace and order is therefore not about making everyone good; it’s about supporting good people so they can govern and prevent bad people from grabbing power and creating trouble and unrest,” the statement said, quoting a speech delivered to boy scouts 30 years ago.
The king’s statement came less than two months after he aborted the attempt of his elder sister, Princess Ubolratana, to be a prime ministerial candidate for a small party linked to deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
About 51.4 million Thais are eligible to vote in the election that will determine the 500 members of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the bicameral legislature.
Polls opened at 8 a.m. and voters were expected to cast their ballot until 5 p.m. Sunday, election officials said. Turnout was expected to be high.
Chumphon Phansuwan, 69, a retired civil servant, was among Bangkok residents who came out to vote early on a hot, sunny election day.
“I want democracy, of course, that is why I come out to vote. I want the government to solve problems. The economy is bad,” he told BenarNews.
Prayuth, the 65-year-old former army chief, is the prime ministerial candidate of the Palang Pracharat Party. He has rebranded himself as a “man of the people” with an Instagram account showing him cooking, hugging elderly women and riding a train with smiling children.
Eighty political parties are competing for House seats, while 250 senators in the upper chamber will be chosen largely by the military junta.
Other notable prime minister contenders include Sudarat Keyuraphan of Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party, popular in the rural northeast; Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party, a former prime seen as pro-military but anti-Prayuth; and Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit of the new Future Forward Party, a 40-year-old businessman who had gained a following among young people.
With almost eight million new voters this year, the balloting is widely seen as a contest between pro-military and pro-democracy parties, and parties whose allegiance is not yet clear.
But new election rules put in place by the junta make it difficult for any one party to win the 376 seats needed to appoint a prime minister, especially since the hand-picked, 250-seat Senate will participate in selecting the Kingdom’s next political leader.
Of 500 seats in the lower chamber, 350 will be directly elected, and another 150 “party-list seats” will be assigned based on overall results, under the new procedures.
“The military has been doing everything in order to be able to extend its power. The way the constitution has been drafted … everything has been skewed towards helping the military maintain its grip on power,” Umesh Pandey, a former MP candidate with the now-banned Thai Raksa Chart party, told BenarNews hours before the polls opened.
In a nation where generals have staged more than a dozen successful coups, analysts warned that the election could usher in a new period of instability, because the political system designed by the military has not been accepted by all sides.
“Anti-junta forces are likely to win the vote in the lower house, but because the Constitution is so stacked in the military’s favor, a junta-led coalition government is likely,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told the New York Times.