BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand votes Sunday in an election many see as an opportunity to break free from military-dominated governments that have held power for most of the nation’s modern history.
Some 52 million eligible voters will choose among candidates from 70 parties to serve a four-year term in the House of Representatives. It will have 400 members directly elected by constituencies and 100 chosen by proportional representation on a nationwide party preference ballot.
Parties that win at least 25 seats are qualified to nominate a prime minister and can name up to three candidates.
The prime minister is selected by a simple majority of a joint vote of the lower house and the Senate, whose 250 members were not elected but appointed by a military government. That means the winning candidate needs at least 376 votes.
Political turmoil has persisted since the 2006 army coup ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The billionaire populist was accused of corruption and abuse of power, but his popularity also rattled the traditional royalist ruling class, who felt the king and their privilege were threatened.
Thaksin went into exile to avoid prison, but his supporters and opponents continued to fight for power, in the streets and at the ballot box. Thaksin proxy parties won elections, but then were kicked out of office due to controversial legal rulings by the highly conservative courts.
A government that came to power with Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra was deposed by a coup in 2014 led by then-army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha. The Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai Party won the most seats in the 2019 election, but a military-backed party cobbled together a coalition government with Prayuth as prime minister.
Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, is squaring off against Prayuth, who is running for reelection with the United Thai Nation Party.
Opinion polls show Paetongtarn favored to become the next prime minister and her Pheu Thai Party set to grab the lion’s share of house seats.
The Move Forward Party, led by businessman Pita Limjaroenrat, is surging in the polls, galvanizing especially younger voters as it boldly advocates for reform of the military and monarchy, the latter a sensitive subject since the institution has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct.
Other parties lag behind but may factor in the wheeling and dealing to assemble a coalition government. They include the Palang Pracharath Party, backing Prayuth’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan as its nominee; and the Bhumjaithai Party, which controls a large bloc of votes in the northeast.
In many respects, the election is seen as referendum on Prayuth’s last four years in power, during which his government turned back several no-confidence motions but was widely scorned for mishandling the economy and botching Thailand’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Most voters are probably concerned about the ailing economy, and the major parties all promote populist policies generally involving cash handouts.
Move Forward stands out in pushing ideological issues front and center, attracting voters tired of the anti-democratic means by which Prayuth came to and stayed in power, and by extension, the decades of military interference in politics.
All signs are that Pheu Thai will capture the greatest number of House seats, but forming the next government will be a challenge. The party has little chance of winning votes from the Senate, which gave unanimous support to Prayuth in 2019.
An alliance with Move Forward would be natural because of their shared enmity for the military, but the smaller party’s more radical stance, especially calling for reform of the monarchy, would make other parties reluctant to join.
Pheu Thai could propose one of its alternates as prime minister, playing down the links to the Shinawatra family, which is loathed by royalist conservatives.
It could also back former general Prawit as prime minister in an effort to win the trust and votes of a bloc of otherwise unfriendly senators.
If none of those options work, Prayuth or another figure could emerge as prime minister with a minority government, which would be a recipe for instability.