Thais are voting on Sunday in an election that could lead to the defeat of the military-backed leader who has ruled Thailand for almost a decade.
However, a skewed election system means the shape of the new government is “very unpredictable”, say analysts, and it is not clear if pro-democracy candidates will succeed in unseating the generals.
Since 2014, Thailand’s prime minister has been Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who first came to power in a coup. A staunch royalist and conservative, he has run a strongly nationalistic election campaign, warning that opposition parties’ promised reform will bring chaos.
Polling, however, has suggested that many voters do want change. Pheu Thai, the party associated with the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is expected by analysts to win the most seats. At Pheu Thai’s final big rally on Friday, his daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, one of the party’s three prime ministerial candidates, told crowds that Sunday would be a “historic day” where Thailand will move “from junta rule to democratic rule”.
Move Forward, the most progressive opposition party, has also enjoyed late surges in polling after capturing strong support from young voters during its campaigns. Younger generations have been drawn to its pledge to demilitarise politics and break up monopolies. It is also the only party to promise to reform the lese majeste law, under which criticism of Thailand’s powerful monarchy can lead to 15 years in prison.
Sunday’s election is the first to be held after youth-led mass protests in 2020 shocked the establishment by calling not only for the removal of Prayuth, but also for the influence and wealth of the monarchy to be curbed – criticising an institution previously considered untouchable. Campaigning has featured unprecedented discussion of the lese majeste law, a new fault line in Thai politics. “It’s the first time in history that every political party has to talk about their stance on this sensitive topic,” said Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist at Thammasat University in Bangkok.
This year’s election is “not only a referendum on the military, but the whole establishment”, he said, citing the increased questioning of the royal family’s role in society. The vote, Prajak said, “will be a crucial step for Thailand to return to democracy”. But he added: “The path may not be smooth.”
Parties will be competing for 500 seats in the House of Representatives on Sunday, but even if opposition parties do well, they may not be able to take power. A future prime minister will be voted on jointly by the elected lower house and the senate – the latter’s 250 members having been appointed by the military after the last coup.
Parties such as Pheu Thai will probably need to form alliances to overcome this hurdle.
“The electoral results can be predicted easily, but the government formation is very unpredictable,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, who added that unlikely partnerships are still possible.
Opposition candidates could also face extra-parliamentary moves that would keep them from power. Last week, a complaint was filed against Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of Move Forward, claiming that he owns undeclared shares in a media company. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Complaints have also been filed against Pheu Thai.
Pheu Thai’s campaign this year has been boosted by Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn, who has helped revive nostalgia for her father.
However, at a rally on Friday night her fellow candidate Srettha Thavisin, a property tycoon, declared that he wanted “to serve as Thailand’s 30th prime minister and lead the people out of the darkness”, prompting speculation that he could be the party’s primary candidate for leader.
Thaksin, who remains a polarising figure, lives in exile to avoid legal charges. However, he has repeatedly commented that he would like to return – a prospect that analysts say could bring about political instability.
For two decades, Thai politics have been shaped by division between Pheu Thai’s Shinawatra family versus the conservative royalists. The a power struggle between the two sides has resulted in long-running street protests and two military coups.