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Saturday, Feb 24, 2024

Thais expected to deliver heavy poll blow to military parties

Thais expected to deliver heavy poll blow to military parties

Thailand votes Sunday in an election expected to deliver a rejection of former coup leader Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, with the opposition led by exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra’s daughter tipped to win the most seats.
Polls suggest voters will hand in a damning verdict on nearly a decade of military-backed rule that has brought economic stagnation and what rights groups say is a worrying crackdown on basic freedoms.

The election is the first since youth-led pro-democracy protests upended the kingdom’s politics nearly three years ago with unprecedented calls for reforms to the powers of ultra-wealthy King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Leading the polls is the Pheu Thai party fronted by 36-year-old Paetongtarn Shinawatra, youngest daughter of former PM Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

The junta-scripted constitution, however, gives the Senate, handpicked by the military, a major say in choosing the prime minister — potentially blocking Pheu Thai’s route to power.

Former army chief Prayut seized power in a 2014 coup, ousting Paetongtarn’s aunt Yingluck, before becoming prime minister at the head of a complex multi-party coalition following a controversial 2019 election.

The 69-year-old has pitched himself as the candidate with the experience required for the job, but is lagging badly in the polls, blamed for a sputtering economy and feeble recovery from the pandemic, which battered the kingdom’s crucial tourism sector.

“Look at our country — do you think our economy is good after four years?” office worker Wan Sirichai, 50, said in Bangkok.

“They don’t use quality people to rule the country, but they used nepotism to benefit their own close friends. I just want smart people to come in and change the country.”

Voters braved blistering heat on Sunday to cast early ballots a week ahead of the main voting day, with the Election Commission putting turnout at 90 percent.

Analysts said the high early turnout pointed to a strong desire for change among the 52-million-strong electorate.

The election pitches a youthful opposition against the conservative royalist-military Bangkok establishment represented by Prayut’s United Thai Nation party and the Palang Pracharath Party, which led the outgoing governing coalition.

Under Prayut’s government, lese majeste prosecutions have rocketed, contributing to what Human Rights Watch has called an “atmosphere of fear” around the election.

More than 200 people have faced royal defamation charges in the wake of the 2020 street protests, which included calls for changes to the previously untouchable monarchy.

With household debt running high and growth feeble, much campaigning has focused on the economy, which is Southeast Asia’s second-largest.

There is little new on offer in terms of policies, however, with most parties engaging in a bidding war on populist welfare promises.

Pheu Thai has pledged to give 10,000 baht ($300) in a digital wallet to every citizen over 16 years old, while others have pledged to hike the minimum wage and give cash grants to farmers.

Pheu Thai and its previous incarnations have won most seats at every election since 2001, but it has had two PMs removed by coups and two by court orders.

Paetongtarn has urged voters to deliver a landslide win to prevent the military-appointed Senate blocking the party’s route to the top job.

The wildcard in the election is the radical Move Forward Party, Pheu Thai’s closest rival in the opinion polls, which has hoovered up support from young people disaffected with the old parties and who took to the streets in 2020.

MFP rose from the ashes of the Future Forward Party, which stunned the kingdom by finishing third in the 2019 election, before being dissolved by court order.

With the 250 junta-picked senators likely to vote against a Pheu Thai candidate, the party needs to secure 376 out of 500 MPs.

While Pheu Thai is polling well, it is unlikely to secure such a landslide, suggesting it will need to find coalition partners to secure power.

An alliance with the radical MFP could raise the risk of more military intervention in a country that has already experienced a dozen coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

Political analyst Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee of Chulalongkorn University said that despite Pheu Thai’s assertions to the contrary, a link-up with one of the outgoing military-allied parties looks possible.

“We probably will see them mix with some party from the old government side for the reason of compromise and stability,” she said.

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