[Analytics] Thailand elections: voting underway in first poll since 2014 coup

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha casts his ballot in Bangkok. Photo: Reuters

There are 51.2 million registered voters in the country, although some 2.2 million people cast their ballots last weekend after opting for early voting. The 500 MPs and the 250 junta-appointed senators will each have a vote on who becomes prime minister. Bhavan Jaipragas, Jitsiree Thongnoi specially for the South China Morning Post.

Some 92,320 polling stations in 77 provinces opened in Thailand on Sunday for a general election that for the sixth time in two decades pits the powerful military-royal establishment against the equally formidable political bloc linked to the billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Voting, which began at 8am local time, will end at 5pm.

This is the country’s first election since junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha toppled a Shinawatra-linked government in 2014. It is being held after being postponed several times and under a new constitution crafted by the junta.

Observers say the polls are one-sided on account of just that fact, as the new rules – including sweeping powers granted to the military-appointed Senate – hand the Shinawatra faction a major disadvantage.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, presiding over a general election for the first time since he took the throne in 2016, late on Saturday issued a statement urging his subjects to choose “good people” and to maintain “peace and order”. The statement was broadcast for a second time on national television channels just before 8am.

There are a total of around 51.2 million registered voters in the country, although some 2.2 million people cast their ballots last weekend after opting for early voting.

There are 500 parliamentary seats – 350 constituency wards and 150 party list seats – being contested by 77 political parties.

The 500 MPs and the 250 junta-appointed senators will each have a vote on who becomes prime minister.
The biggest player is the Pheu Thai Party, victor in the 2011 and 2014 election and the reincarnation of Thaksin-linked parties that won the 2001, 2006 and 2007 vote.

The Pheu Thai Party was in power in May 2014 – helmed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck – when current junta leader Prayuth successfully staged a coup against it – the country’s 12th successful coup in 82 years, and the second in the 2000s.

On the opposing side is the Palang Pracharat Party. Formed just last year by a few of Prayuth’s opponents, its main objective is to keep Prayuth in power to “maintain peace and stability in the country”.

Whereas Thaksin’s party taps on support from the country’s most populous section, the northeast, Palang Pracharat hopes to capitalise on revulsion among urbanites for the Shinawatras for their populism and purported use of politics to advance their vast business empire.

The pro-military party says it has also made some inroads in the northeast – home to the Laos-influenced Isaan people. The region is particularly loyal to the Shinawatras because of the raft of economic sweeteners Thaksin offered them during when he was in power from 2001 until his ouster – also through a coup – in 2006.

Other players include the Democrat Party, a neoliberal outfit that finished second best to Pheu Thai in the last five elections. The newest kid on the block is the Future Forward Party helmed by the charismatic Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, scion of an auto parts empire.

Observers believe 40-year-old Thanathorn’s star power will attract the support of the nearly eight million first-time voters.

Thanathorn and Prayuth were among the high-profile prime ministerial candidates to cast their vote early on Sunday. Also casting his ballot in Bangkok was the powerful army chief Apirat Kongsompong. Political analysts say the general – an ardent loyalist of Vajiralongkorn – could stage a fresh coup if the outcome of Sunday’s vote is deemed to be against the interests of the military.

Before he cast his ballot Apirat reportedly said his voting decision was based on the king’s late night statement.

Schools, car parks and even a highway underpass were among the places where polling stations were set up across Bangkok.

By 10am, long lines had formed, with many voters frantically fanning themselves to stay cool amid the scorching heat.

Ahead of Sunday’s polls, an international election observer group said there would be limitations in judging the fairness of the vote because accreditation for monitors was granted too late.

Only about half of the 80 monitors the group intended to deploy will be on the ground because of visa issues, a representative of the Asian Network for Free Elections told Reuters.

The election commission has said 95 per cent of results in the 350 constituency seats will be tallied by around 8pm, three hours after polling stations close. Exit poll results are likely to offer an idea of the outcome before that.

There will be no formal announcement on the allocation of the 150 party list seats for now.
Prayuth’s junta will remain in power until after the May 4-6 coronation ceremony of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

The monarch’s statement on Saturday urging people to pick “good people” harked back to a 1969 speech by his revered late father King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who, despite near-constant political standoffs, kept the country united during his record breaking seven-decade rule.

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