Voters are finally gearing up for Thailand’s general election, set to take place on May 14, after months of speculation. On Monday, Thailand’s parliament was dissolved, setting the stage for a showdown mainly between military-backed conservatives and their pro-democracy opponents.
As 52 million eligible voters head to the polls in May, they’ll be voting in the first election since a huge wave of pro-democracy protests hit Thailand in 2020. The youth-led movement rallied against the military-backed government and soon grew to demand reforms to Thailand’s monarchy, a notoriously untouchable institution with far-reaching political powers.
Taking center stage in this election, according to experts, is a vote on the incumbent pro-military government, which has controlled the country for nearly a decade and is led by Prayut Chan-o-cha.
“The election is shaping up to be a more narrow referendum on Prayut’s tenure,” Napon Jatusripitak, a researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based research center for Southeast Asian politics, told VICE World News.
“It fundamentally boils down to whether Prayut stays or goes,” he said.
Below, a look at the main contenders this election.
United Thai Nation Party
Once backed by the junta-linked Palang Pracharath Party, military chief-turned-prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is now running for office under the newly formed United Thai Nation Party, which he joined in January.
Prayut first seized power in a 2014 military coup and retained his prime ministerial position after a controversial 2019 election tilted in favor of Palang Pracharath. But having spent nine years on the job, he will only be allowed to serve another two years if chosen as prime minister, after a 2017 constitutional amendment imposed a term limit.
But reaching the term limit may be the least of Prayut’s concerns, as the prime minister’s popularity trails behind his more progressive rivals this election. According to the latest survey by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), Prayut ranked third as the public’s choice for prime minister, behind Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat and Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra.
Prayut remains the favorite conservative candidate in parts of the country, especially the deep south, where a decadeslong conflict has been simmering. Another NIDA poll in February saw Prayut listed as the top choice among voters in the region.
But that might be where his popularity ends.
“It’s an uphill battle for him,” Napon said. “We do not see Prayut as someone who still claims the mandate of the conservative establishment.”
Complicating Prayut’s quest for conservative votes is his former close colleague, Prawit Wongsuwan, who leads the military-aligned Palang Pracharath Party—which nominated Prayut as its candidate for prime minister in 2019—after a secretive falling out between the two generals.
Like Prayut, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit represents one of the country’s most prominent conservative forces. But unlike Prayut, Prawit appears to be rebranding himself as someone more open to communicating with those across the political spectrum. In a series of recent Facebook posts elaborating on his campaign promises, the ex-general said that “the country can only move forward with democratic governance.”
“I’ll respect the majority voice, but I’ll open my heart to listen to the minority who have knowledge, capability, and good intentions for the country,” he wrote.
The main opponent facing off against the conservative establishment is Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who has been established as a favorite in the coming election.
The 36-year-old is the expected prime ministerial candidate for the Pheu Thai Party, an incarnation of the Thai Rak Thai Party founded by her father and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006. Her aunt Yingluck Shinawatra, who was also elected as prime minister in 2011, was similarly ousted in a 2014 military coup staged by Prayut and his team. Both Thaksin and Yingluck live in exile after fleeing corruption charges that have been labeled by some analysts as politically motivated.
The Pheu Thai Party positions itself as a progressive alternative to Prayut’s government. Experts say that Pheu Thai, which shares the same working class voter base as its predecessors, has found massive popularity through family legacy and a pro-democracy campaign platform.
Though new to the political scene, Paetongtarn remains a hot favorite. This week, Paetongtarn topped the pre-election poll for prime minister candidates, with 38 percent of 2,000 respondents saying they would back her in the election—more than double the next best candidate, Move Forward Party Leader Pita Limjaroenrat.
“She is the daughter of the most popular and controversial politician,” Pitch Pongsawat, who heads the government department at the political science faculty at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told VICE World News, pointing to the family’s track record of fulfilling grassroots-centered policies.
“It gives confidence to the pro-Thaksin voter and elite to [vote for the] Pheu Thai Party even though they have been ousted out of power for more than eight years.”
The political winds still appear to be blowing in Pheu Thai’s favor. In May last year, Pheu Thai candidate Chadchart Sittipunt won Bangkok’s governor elections by a landslide—an early but clear sign of the party’s rising popularity as the Shinawatra family looks to make a political comeback.
Move Forward Party
Sharing a similar progressive platform as Pheu Thai is the Move Forward Party. While the two parties have jointly advocated for policies like LGBTQ rights, they notably diverge on issues related to the monarchy. While Pheu Thai has ignored pressure from activists and stayed silent on the topic of repealing the country's royal defamation laws, the Move Forward Party, which prides itself as Thailand’s most progressive, has been vocal about its support for repeal.
“The only party I can see capturing the votes of the youth on the basis of the pro-democracy and pro-royal reform movement is the Move Forward Party,” Napon said.
In the 2019 election, Move Forward’s predecessor, the Future Forward Party, tunneled to victory and secured 81 seats to become the third largest party in parliament just one year after it was founded.
But the victory was short-lived. Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was disqualified as a member of parliament in November 2019 over media company shares he owned during the election. He was also previously charged with inciting unrest, unlawful gathering, and helping an activist avoid arrest—allegations he argued were politically motivated. In 2020, the party was dissolved over money accepted from Thanathorn, which the court ruled as a violation of election law.
The Move Forward Party was born in the wake of the dissolution, comprising many of the remaining members of the Future Forward Party. It’s led by Pita Limjaroenrat, who said that their new party shared the same progressive ideology as its disbanded predecessor.
The Bhumjaithai Party, part of the ruling coalition in Prayut’s administration, is perhaps best known for its cannabis legalization policy during the 2019 election, which it partially delivered last year—while legalization led to the proliferation of cannabis businesses across the country, progress has stalled on accompanying cannabis laws, which has sparked serious regulatory confusion on the ground.
The man behind the tumultuous legalization of cannabis in Thailand, Health Minister Anutin Charnveerakul, is the party’s likely prime ministerial candidate.
The Bhumjaithai Party’s weed policy, which received mixed reaction from the public, has turned out to be a double-edged sword, experts say.
“The Bhumjaithai Party has succeeded in legalizing marijuana and hemp, but it has failed to push through the necessary new law to regulate [their use],” Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a visiting fellow at the Thailand Studies Programme of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told VICE World News.
“Now major parties, including Pheu Thai, Move Forward, and Democrat, are campaigning against ‘free marijuana’ and want to put marijuana and hemp back on the banned narcotic list.”
The party has promised to revive the stalled cannabis bill after the election, and urged people to vote Bhumjaithai to keep cannabis from being criminalized again.
What could change after the election?
Probably not that much, experts say.
For years, the Prayut administration has intensified its crackdown on dissenters to shield the powerful military and royal institutions from criticism. And even if Pheu Thai leads the next government, the party is not known to rock the boat on these issues, Napon said.
“If Pheu Thai were to become the leading force in the government… I think we could see a more drastic change to both the political landscape and policy trajectory [compared to victory from the conservative camps]” Napon said. “But it’s limited in the extent to which it would decisively alter the Thai political order.”
Even if radical changes remain elusive, a departure from the military-backed regime may be all that Thailand’s pro-democracy activists are looking for at this moment.
Earlier this month, when two young activists ended a 52-day hunger strike to protest the detention of political dissenters, their friend and fellow activist Jutatip Sirikhan told VICE World News that they are some of the last ones pushing back against the government’s iron-fisted rule.
“They want democracy and are brave to criticize the government and royal family,” she said. “We are going into the general election in May, I hope to see change and a new government.”