Bangkok, Thailand – While Thais celebrated the Songkran festival last month by plunging each other into a barrage of water fights, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha hoped the occasion would help him salvage his lackluster reelection campaign.
Donning a cheery Hawaiian shirt and armed with a huge blue squirt pistol Prayuth, the army chief-turned-politician who toppled Yingluck Shinawatra’s government in 2014, made a surprise appearance on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, joining startled revelers in the traditional water fights that mark the festival.
Thailand’s May 14 election will shape the Southeast Asian country’s political and foreign policy for years to come as its quasi-military government faces growing internal discontent, security pressures from neighboring Myanmar and growing rivalry between the United States and China .
Under Prayuth, Thailand has moved closer to China, abstained from voting on the United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and embraced Myanmar’s coup leaders. But everything can change if he is replaced.
Polls show Prayuth, 69, trailing far behind his younger rivals – Pheu Thai (PTP) party leader Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, and Move Forward (MFP) leader Pita Limjaroenrat, 42. Paetongtarn, who gave birth to a baby boy this week, is the niece of Yingluck and the daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was also overthrown in a coup.
Despite the continued crackdown on opposition parties, Pheu Thai and Move Forward have proved remarkably resilient and analysts are concerned about a major political confrontation.
But reports that the PTP, which grew out of previous Thaksin-affiliated parties, might be willing to strike a deal with the military parties has alarmed some young, progressive voters.
“I am voting for the MFP because they stand for democracy and will not collude with those involved in coups. They have a good policy manifesto that tries to address many problems in Thai society,” Sirikanda Jariyanukoon, a 26-year-old public relations consultant from the southern Thai city of Nakhon Si Thammarat, told Al Jazeera.
Jariyanukoon, who will cast the second vote of her life, said she would not vote for the PTP because “it’s time for new people, new parties and a new way of doing politics”. fits”.
That thirst for change was evident in the 2019 election when the Future Forward Party, founded by charismatic entrepreneur Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, stunned Thailand’s ruling elite by finishing third.
After the election, the authorities decided to ban Thanathorn from politics and split the party, eventually leading to the creation of MFP with a similar reform plan.
Meanwhile, young people continued to fight for change, leading large-scale protests in Bangkok that challenged the traditional elite and confronted once taboo issues such as monarchy reform.
Rawipa, a Bangkok resident in her mid-twenties, also said she would support the MFP.
“I support MFP and support Pita as PM. I used to support the PTP but their policy and communication is too desperate. MFP has taken over as a carrier of progressivism,” Rawipa told Al Jazeera.
“Thai people have been more active in politics in recent years. I doubt that Prayuth and his comrades can deny the will of the people forever,” she said, adding that there was widespread resentment against his administration.
Rawipa also wants to reform the political system to prevent future coups and populist leaders.
“This is also why I switched to backup MFP. Thailand does not need personality-oriented politics,” she said, referring to the dynastic politics of Thaksin and his family.
‘Dangerous for Thailand’
With PTP and MFP vigorously campaigning for votes, it’s easy to forget that Thailand’s military is a critical element in the country’s parliamentary arithmetic.
The outcome of the poll will be determined not only by the 500 people elected to the House of Representatives, but also by the 250 senators appointed by the military. That means the two main pro-democracy parties and their allies may need more than 75 percent of the seats (376) to form a government.
That is based on the assumption that politicians and opposition parties will not be dissolved or barred from taking their seats after the elections.
Prayuth heads the royalist United Thai Nation Party, while Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, also a former army commander-in-chief, heads the Palang Pracharath (PPRP), the military party that Prayuth created as a vehicle for his 2019 campaign. Both men have denied rumors of a breakup.
In an interview with Thailand’s PBS last month, Prayuth said, “I am confident we will win at least 25 seats,” referring to the minimum number of seats a party needs to nominate a candidate for the top post.
Earlier, the prime minister said his next government would continue the work of his predecessors.
“The most important thing is to defend the country and protect the country’s most important institution. Please trust me as you always have,” Prayuth said.
Meanwhile, Prawit has touted his party’s commitment to eradicating poverty and solving land and water problems.
“People will not encounter droughts. They will have land where they can make a living… We will do everything we can to eradicate poverty. If the PPRP wins, we will lift 20 million people out of poverty,” he told the Bangkok Post at a policy launch in February.
The vote will determine whether the kind of military-royalist conservative rule epitomized by Prayuth is deepened or whether a compromise can be reached between democratic forces and the military establishment to usher in much-needed governance reforms, Chulalongkorn University’s Thitinan Pongsudhirak warned.
“If these elections are again undermined and Thailand ends up with a similar military-backed government – in a manner like the 2019 polls – public confidence in the political leadership will be further eroded,” said Thitinan, an influential expert on the field of Thai and regional politics, explained.
“Look at the crisis in neighboring Myanmar. It is not inconceivable that a similar crisis could unfold in Thailand,” he added, referring to the February 2021 coup in the neighboring country.
Many worry that a divided Thailand, at risk of another military coup, will struggle to deal with the country’s and region’s problems.
Thailand has accumulated a soaring national debt of more than 5 trillion baht ($148 billion) during Prayuth’s administration, which will continue as the country focuses on slow, labour-intensive growth, Thitinan said.
If the election leads to Prayuth’s departure, there could be a shift in Thailand’s international relations, former Thai foreign minister and ambassador Kasit Piromya told Al Jazeera.
“Changes will come as the policy will no longer be based on a personal relationship like the one between Prayuth and Min Aung Hlaing,” he said, referring to Myanmar’s coup leader and army chief. He added that foreign policy is currently defined by “avoidance [a] foreign policy and commitment or doing nothing not to rock the boat domestically and internationally”.
With the campaign in its final stages, the reformist parties seem poised to win the most votes.
Zach Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., said it was likely the Senate would vote en bloc to prevent Paetongtarn and the Pheu Thai from forming a government.
“The army has hand-picked the senators with only one goal: to drive the Thaksins out of Thai politics,” he said.
But analysts say the military will have to accept the outcome to help heal the rifts that have plagued the country for so many years.
“Denying the winning parties the right to govern will exacerbate already deep divisions. Young people in particular will feel increasingly disillusioned with the establishment. This is dangerous for Thailand,” Michael Ng, former deputy head of the Hong Kong government office in Bangkok, told Al Jazeera.