Thailand is heading to the polls on 14 May, in an election that could have significant implications for the country’s future and its role in Southeast Asia.

The current government is led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who seized power in 2014 and stayed in office after the 2019 election, thanks to a military-drafted constitution that gave him an advantage over his rivals. Prayut’s coalition is backed by conservative elites and royalists, who see him as a defender of the monarchy and the status quo.

Why it matters

Thailand will hold a general election on May 14, 2023, after the dissolution of parliament by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. The election is expected to be a close contest between the main opposition party, Pheu Thai, led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, and the ruling coalition parties, led by Prayut’s United Thai Nation Party. Pheu Thai has won every election since 2001, but its governments have been ousted by coups or court rulings.

The role of the military

The military has been a dominant force in Thai politics for decades, staging 12 successful coups since 1932. The latest one ousted the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was also deposed by a coup in 2006.

The military junta, led by Prayut Chan-o-cha, has ruled the country with an iron fist, banning political activities, censoring the media and cracking down on dissent. It has also drafted a new constitution that gives it considerable influence over the future government, such as appointing all 250 members of the upper house of parliament and having the power to intervene in case of a “national crisis”.

The fate of the Shinawatras

The Shinawatra family has been at the center of Thailand’s political divide for more than a decade. Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire tycoon who rose to power in 2001, was popular among the rural poor for his populist policies, but despised by the urban elite and the royalist establishment for his alleged corruption and disrespect for the monarchy.

His sister Yingluck followed in his footsteps and won a landslide victory in 2011, but faced massive street protests and legal challenges that eventually led to her ouster and exile. Both siblings face criminal charges in Thailand and have been living abroad to avoid imprisonment. Their political party, Pheu Thai, remains the largest and most popular in the country, but has been weakened by defections and legal hurdles.

The rise of new parties

The election will also see the emergence of several new parties that aim to challenge the status quo and appeal to younger and urban voters.

One of them is Move Forward, founded by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a 40-year-old billionaire and former auto parts executive who has vowed to end the military’s involvement in politics and reform the monarchy.

Move Forward is the successor of Future Forward, a new party that emerged in 2019 and attracted many young and urban voters with its bold agenda of constitutional change, military reform and human rights. Future Forward was dissolved by the courts in 2020 for alleged violations of electoral laws.

Another is Anakot Mai (New Future), founded by former members of the now-dissolved Thai Raksa Chart party, which was banned by the Constitutional Court for nominating Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya as its prime ministerial candidate, a move that was deemed unconstitutional and inappropriate by her brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Other notable parties include Action Coalition for Thailand (ACT), backed by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and Bhumjaithai (Proud to Be Thai), led by Anutin Charnvirakul, a businessman and former public health minister.

What to expect

The election comes at a time when Thailand is facing several social and economic challenges, such as income inequality, poverty, environmental degradation, human rights violations and sluggish growth. Many Thais are hoping that the election will bring about positive change and restore their faith in democracy after years of military rule. However, others are skeptical that the election will be free and fair, or that it will end the cycle of coups and protests that has plagued the country for so long.

An uncertain outcome

The outcome of the election is uncertain, as opinion polls show varying levels of support for different parties and candidates. The election will also be influenced by factors such as voter turnout, electoral fraud, media bias, and legal challenges. The election commission has been accused of being biased and incompetent, and several opposition candidates have faced criminal charges or disqualification.

Some fear that the election could trigger violence or instability if the results are disputed or unacceptable to any of the parties involved. The role of the king, who ascended to the throne in 2016 after the death of his revered father Bhumibol Adulyadej, will also be closely watched as he has shown signs of asserting his authority over political matters.

The main challenger to Prayut’s coalition is Pheu Thai. Pheu Thai is popular among rural and urban poor voters, who benefited from Thaksin’s populist policies such as universal health care, cheap loans and subsidies. Pheu Thai is led by Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn, who has vowed to win a majority of seats and form a new government that would pursue democratic reforms, social justice and reconciliation.

However, Pheu Thai faces several obstacles, such as electoral rules that favour smaller parties, legal threats that could disqualify some of its candidates and leaders, and a split in the anti-establishment vote with the progressive Move Forward party.

Concerns about the fairness and credibility

The international community has expressed concerns about the fairness and credibility of the election process. The election results may not be accepted by all sides, leading to further instability and conflict.

Nevertheless, the election could still be highly consequential for Thailand’s future, as it could determine whether the country will move towards more democracy or more authoritarianism.

About the author

Nguyen Trang is a journalist based in Hanoi, Vietnam. She has been working for the Vietnam News Agency since 2015, covering topics such as politics, culture, and social issues.

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