The daughter of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra leads in the polls. Some 52 million Thais will cast their ballots for the lower house on 14 May. Senators were appointed by the former military junta before the 2019 election. The post of prime minister is coveted by many candidates. Human rights remain an important concern.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – A month from Thailand’s general election, polls show the main opposition party, For Thais Party (Phak Phuea Thai), in the lead, but incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha could still get a third mandate if his new party, the United Thai Nation Party (Ruam Thai Sang Chart), forms an alliance with one of the other conservative, pro-military parties. Prayut is a retired army officer who came to power for the first time following a coup in 2014.
On 14 May, more than 52 million Thais will be called to the polls to pick 500 members of the House of Representatives (lower house) – 400 MPs in single constituencies and 100 from party lists. The Senate has instead 250 members who were appointed prior to the 2019 election by the National Council for Peace and Order, the former military junta.
At the end of August, the two chambers, which constitute Thailand’s National Assembly, will meet to choose the next prime minister, who will need at least 376 votes to get the job. After the 2019 election, every senator voted for Prayut.
Last week, Human Rights Watch reported that given the nature of Thailand’s political regime, a truly free and fair election is impossible in the Southeast Asian country since the constitution, adopted in 2017 by an assembly chosen by the military, entrenched the role of the military at the expense of civilians.
Thai law bans buying and selling votes but also the sale of alcohol and hosting “drinking sessions" from 6 pm the day before the election until the end of the election day.
Prisoners, people with severe mental illness and monks are not allowed to vote.
As the economy took a nosedive and political unrest grew over the past few years, Prayut’s approval ratings have waned. In this election, the 69-year-old, who left the army in 2019, pledged to end the work started in 2014 and find a successor within two years.
Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled last year that Prayut could only serve for only two more years having reached the limit of eight years of government.
When Prayut left the Palang Pracharat party to create his own United Thai Nation Party, he was replaced by as party leader Prawit Wongsuwan, 77, currently the first deputy prime minister in the outgoing administration. Like Prayut, Wongsuwan is a retired army general and a former member of the last military junta. In these elections, he has positioned himself between conservative and pro-democracy forces.
The main opposition party, Pheu Thai Party, has won every election since 2001, under different names. Its leader, 36-year-old Paethongtharn Shinawatra, is the youngest daughter of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. An executive at a real estate firm, she is best known by her nickname "Ung Ing”.
Although a political novice, she hopes to win enough seats to overrule the military-controlled Senate. Her campaign has led her into the vote-rich rural strongholds, promising to bring back populist policies like raising the daily minimum wage to 600 baht (US$ 17.61).
Her appeal among voters has been rising, but Pheu Thai has also presented Srettha Thavisin, 60, CEO of one of the country's largest real estate companies, who is popular in the business community. According to some observers, his candidacy counterbalances Shinawatra’s, who has little experience.
Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, leads the progressive-leaning Move Forward Party (Phak Kao Klai), and is running second in public opinion polls, 15 points behind the forerunner. Elected for the first time in 2019, he has strong appeal among younger voters. He has proposed amendments to the strict lèse-majesté law, which punishes insults to the royal family with penalties of up to 15 years in prison.
The incumbent Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, 56, could play kingmaker according to some analysts. His party, Thai Pride Party (Phak Phumchai Thai), has 50 seats in the lower house and has pushed for the legalisation of medical marijuana, angering conservative groups.
Economy, young people and human rights
In recent years, the cost of living has increased and household debt continues to be very high. At the same time, the economy grew by 2.8 per cent in 2022.
The Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council expects growth to be around 3 per cent this year, lower than other Southeast Asian countries.
This has made the economy the centrepiece of party platforms with pledges of higher wages, better jobs and greater benefits.
Internationally, Thailand has moved closer to China since the 2014 coup, while at home, the role played by young people in the protest movement three years ago – with their calls for changes to the monarchy – has drawn closer scrutiny.
Since July 2020, Thai authorities have indicted more than 1,800 pro-democracy activists, opposition supporters and government critics for expressing their views or taking part in peaceful demonstrations. More than 280 are minors, including 41 under the age of 15, Human Rights Watch reported.
In the current campaign, the Election Commission has banned any reference to the monarchy, threatening to prosecute those who violate the law. In November 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that criticising the monarchy is tantamount to treason.