Bangkok, Thailand– Voters in Thailand go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament in what analysts are calling the country’s “most pivotal election yet.”
The poll is the first in the Southeast Asian country since a youth-led uprising in 2020 that broke long-held taboos by calling for a curtailment of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s power, as well as an end to nearly a decade of military-backed violence. rule.
Sunday’s vote is expected to provide a strong mandate for change, with opinion polls consistently predicting a majority for the main opposition Pheu Thai Party and the youth-led Phak Kao Klai (Move Forward Party, MFP).
But fears remain that the royalist military establishment will try to stay in power. In the past 20 years alone, the military has staged two coups, while the courts have overthrown three prime ministers and dissolved several opposition parties.
“People are worried and scared,” said Hathairat Phaholtap, editor-in-chief of Isaan Record newspaper. “They have waited so long for this vote, and it means a lot to them. There is a lot of tension, but also excitement and hope.”
Here’s what you need to know about Sunday’s election.
Who are the main contenders?
Leading the polls is Pheu Thai (For Thais), the opposition party of self-exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. Despite Thaksin’s downfall, parties linked to the telecom magnate have since won every election, including twice in landslides.
The strong election results came on the back of pro-poor policies such as universal health care and debt relief for farmers.
This year, Pheu Thai again promises to expand welfare programs and boost Thailand’s pandemic-ravaged economy, including by offering 10,000 baht ($300) in alms for those aged 16 and over.
The party is currently led by Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra.
At Pheu Thai’s latest rally on Friday, Paetongtarn urged thousands of red-clad supporters to help the party win a landslide to end the military-backed “dictatorship” and “the improve people’s lives”.
Close behind Pheu Thai in the polls is MFP, led by 42-year-old businessman Pita Limjaroenrat.
The Progressive Party has put democratic reforms at the center of its agenda, including pledges to scrap Thailand’s military-drafted constitution, abolish military conscription and review the country’s strict lese-majeste laws, which punish insults to the king with up to 15 years in prison.
The charismatic Pita – who has drawn youthful crowds at his campaign events – has seen a surge in support in recent weeks, with the latest polls showing the public favoring him for the position of prime minister over Paetongtarn.
“Our time has come,” Pita told thousands of orange-clad fans at MFP’s latest rally in Thailand’s capital Bangkok. “To end Thailand’s political crises, we must end cycles of coups – for good.”
Opposing the two reform parties is Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s Ruam Thai Sang Chart (United Thai Nation Party, UTN).
The Nationalist Conservative Party, which promotes values such as peace, harmony and respect for the monarchy, is trailing third in the polls.
Prayuth – who first seized power in a coup in 2014 – wrapped up his campaign on Friday by warning supporters of “damaging” and “revolutionary changes”. He also appealed to the mostly older public to protect the “values of Thais”.
How do the elections work?
About 52 million people of Thailand’s 71 million residents are eligible to vote on Sunday.
At stake are the 500 seats in the House of Representatives. These include 400 seats that are directly elected and 100 seats that are allocated on the basis of proportional representation.
Voters are given two ballots, one for their local constituency and the other for their preferred national-level party.
Polling stations open at 8am local time (1am GMT) and close at 5pm (10am GMT).
When will the results be known?
The first unofficial results will trickle in within hours of the polls closing.
The election commission said on Thursday that results from the 95,000 polling stations nationwide will be collected, verified and published on its website from 7pm (12pm GMT) on voting day.
The committee expects the unofficial results to be known at 11:00 PM (4:00 PM GMT) that same evening.
It has two months to formally ratify the election results.
How is a Prime Minister elected?
Parties must win 25 seats in the lower house to nominate a prime minister.
Polls suggest that Pheu Thai is on track to take about 220-240 seats in the 500-member chamber, while MFP is likely to win between 70 and 100 seats.
The two sides have expressed a willingness to work together, but even with their combined total, they could struggle to form a government.
This is because the constitution drafted by the military allows an unelected Senate of 250 members to participate in the vote to nominate the prime minister.
So candidates must get the support of more than half of the combined houses, or 376 votes, to get the top job.
Pheu Thai and MFP don’t seem to reach that number.
That is why analysts have said that despite his party’s dismal position in the polls, Prayuth’s return as prime minister cannot be ruled out. After all, it was the same Senate that unanimously helped elect Prayuth to the post in 2019, as head of a 19-party coalition.
Many will therefore also look at the smaller parties.
These include the Palang Pracharat Party (People’s State Power Party), led by Prayuth’s deputy Prawit Wongsuwan, and the Bhumjaithai Party (Thai Pride Party), which has strong regional support in northeastern Thailand.
What are the possible outcomes?
Analysts saw three possible main scenarios; The return of Prayuth with the support of the Senate, a coalition between Pheu Thai and MFP, or a partnership between Pheu Thai and the smaller Palang Pracharat party.
The first scenario would result in a minority government.
“This would mean a rickety government, a legislative deadlock and a collapse of the government on key votes,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of international relations at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “Yet the regime at the front of Prayut may be desperate to keep Move Forward and Pheu Thai out of power, preferring to cross bridge by bridge.”
The second option may not even work.
The appointed senators are likely to block a Pheu Thai-MFP government over their opposition to the smaller party’s radical reform agenda.
That leaves a potential coalition between Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharat.
“The third plausible case is the most practical,” Thitinan said. Palang Prachat’s leader, Prawit, is a former general and a deal between the two sides “would disrupt the vote in the Senate and potentially appeal to the palace”.
Amid all the uncertainty, it is clear that the government-forming process looks set to be a lengthy one.
Thai voters may have to wait weeks, possibly several months, to find out what their next government will look like.