Thailand is set to hold its 26th election on Sunday, March 24 after almost five years under junta rule – and having the election date postponed five times.
In May 2014, Thailand’s military declared a coup led by army chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha. This, after seven months of civil unrest between the Red Shirts – former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s supporters – and Yellow Shirts, or elite royalists.
Prayut’s coup was the 13th coup since 1932, the year that Thailand switched from absolute monarchy to a constitution. The goal was to impeach Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck, also Thailand’s first female prime minister. The junta was successful.
It has been almost five years since the military has promised to, as stated on their slogan, “bring back happiness to the people.” But a lot of Thai people feel differently.
This year, 50 million people are eligible to vote, out of 69 million people in Thailand. Last Sunday, March 17, was the first round of voting for those who had registered to vote in advance, and the turnout was immense – with over 80% of eligible voters showing up.
Will this election finally mark change? Here’s all you need to know about the Thai elections.
What makes this election different?
This year’s election is important because it has been eight years since Thailand held its last general elections. It will, once again, test the country’s ability to bring back democracy.
The coup came with Article 44, which grants absolute power to Prayut to pull the plug on whatever he thinks is going to harm the country’s peace and harmony – which can literally mean anything. It allows soldiers to detain people, invite them for a “chat,” or take citizens to one of their “attitude adjustment” camps on the spot. The state of the country’s democracy has been tremendously rocky, which has affected the economy, as well as increased human rights violations. Having the military constantly meddling in the parliament and taking over control makes it harder for the government to get to work and make any progress.
The Thai people has paid a lot of attention to the elections after having been under junta rule for years and losing their right to vote. On the ground, there is a general sentiment of frustration buoyed with a sense of hopefulness and eagerness to vote. The polls are particularly exciting this time around too, with new and younger faces in the game.
Who are the main contenders?
There are 32 political parties but the main parties in this election are:
- Palang Pracharat Party, which is Prayut’s party
- Pheu Thai Party, Thakin’s old colleagues who won every election since 2001
- Democrat Party led by the former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was appointed by the Constitutional Court from 2008-2011
- Future Forward Party, the new kid on the block, led by billionaire motor parts tycoon of Thai Summit Group, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit
Palang Pracharat is favored by the older generation – often also elite and royalists – and firm Thaksin haters. Aside from Thaksin’s followers, a lot of rural Thais favor the Pheu Thai party. The Democrat Party, the oldest in Thai history, is still reeling from its damaged reputation after it participated in the 2013 protest, calling for Yingluck’s ouster.
But the surprise of this election has been the Future Forward Party, which has been around for only one year – although not entirely new to politics. The party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was once a student activist. Other notable members include names like law professor Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and pro-democracy student activist Rangsiman Rome. They’ve done incredibly well for themselves topping popularity polls with their progressive and somewhat controversial policies, new to many conservatives in Thai society.
Who is popular with the youth and why?
Despite only having been around for one year, Future Forward is the most attractive to the youth. They have made it clear that they will not support the military government and want to wipe out the coup culture in Thailand, which has gained a significant amount of attention from young Thais.
They have also used social media strategically to target the youth. Within one year, the party has gained almost 300,000 followers on Facebook.
Apart from openly criticizing the junta, some of their other policies include government transparency, the inclusion of citizens in drafting the new constitution, ending monopoly business models, and transforming required military drafting of Thai men to be voluntary.
What are the risks to watch out for?
The polls surely raise hopes, but it’s unlikely that Thailand will become a democratic country after this election. It’s also dubious that Thailand will be able to break out of the long-standing election-crisis-coup cycle.
In the nearly 90 years since Thailand switched from absolute monarchy to the constitution, the military has consistently meddled in politics. An election would take place, only for the junta to get involved, claiming to bring back the peace or protect the country.
Apirat Kongsompong – another military big shot whose father Sunthorn Kongsompong staged a coup back in 1991 – is another name to watch out for. He recently made a statement that he would only back a government that is loyal to the king.
This could mean that if a party that isn’t much of a royalist wins, Apirat may again intervene.
Who will win?
Prayut of the Palang Pracharat party will most likely win. According to the new constitution he and his allies created before the election, the junta gets to pick 250 senators who will then be combined with 500 representatives voted by all Thai citizens. To become Prime Minister, the candidate needs 376 votes in the parliament. It is unlikely that the 250 senators that Prayut picks won’t back him. That means all he needs is just another 126 votes while every other prime minister candidate has to start from zero.
Although Prayut has a head start however, it is a risky time for him. According to polls done by Chulalongkorn University, Chiang Mai University, and Bansomdejchaopraya Rajabhat University, Thai youth are leaning towards the Future Forward Party. According to Reuters, “Voters aged 18-35 now make up just over a quarter of the electorate of about 50 million. Of those, seven million are eligible to vote for the first time.”
Can the youth change the course of the country?
Editor's Note: This article was previously under an anonymous byline and has since been updated with the author's name.