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Thai polls cast political uncertainty

By Prime Sarmiento in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2019-02-18 07:29

Supporters of Pheu Thai Party attend an election campaign rally in Bangkok, Thailand, on Friday. [Photo/Agencies]

Military influence will remain strong in hybrid government, experts say

The much anticipated Thai general elections next month could see a high turnout of eligible voters amid global attention. It remains to be seen, however, whether the elections herald a fundamental change in Thai politics.

Roughly four-fifths of the estimated 50 million voters will be heading to the polls to elect members of the Lower House, a local researcher predicted.

Punchada Sirivunnabood, associate professor at the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities, Mahidol University, credited young voters aged 18-35 and people who are keen on Thai politics for this likely high turnout.

The last official election, held in 2011, saw the rise of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand's first female prime minister and sister of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Three years later, her party was ousted in a military coup.

Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand, echoed the views made by many observers of Thai politics: that General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in 2014, is a shoo-in for the premier's post.

Prayuth will be running in the March 24 elections under the military-backed Palang Pracharat Party.

According to the new constitution enacted by Prayuth's administration, the prime minister must obtain majority support from the 500-seat House of Representatives and the 250-seat Senate.

While members of the Lower House will be elected, the Senate members will be composed of military appointees. The Senate will then select the next prime minister.

"The military influence will remain very strong even after the elections," said Mark Thompson, director of the Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong. Thompson also expects Prayuth to remain as prime minister and will preside over a 'hybrid government'. He said a civilian-elected House of Representatives will be drafting laws together with a military-controlled Senate.

For Punchada, the most significant change that will come from this election is that the cabinet will have to cope with political parties.

She said that it will be difficult for Thai lawmakers and the cabinet to pass and enact laws given the diverse political parties. Thus, it is important for Prayuth to form a coalition government and learn how to handle different political factions.

Prayuth's government repeatedly promised-and later postponed-elections. Things came to a head by mid-January when the military government had again postponed the scheduled Feb 24 elections.

The announcement spurred hundreds of pro-democracy activists to gather in Bangkok, demanding that elections be held. On January 23, the Election Commission, following a royal decree signed by King Vajiralongkorn, announced that the polls would be held on March 24.

On Feb 4, the commission started registration of candidates vying for a seat in the Lower House.

"Thailand has a long history of military coups, but it also has a long history of political elections," said Thompson. He noted how three military coups have altered Thailand's political landscape in the past few decades. Still, elections have been held regularly since 1933, a year after Thailand transformed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

Punchada of Mahidol University notes that the incoming elections have also shown a deep political division among the electorate-those who favor the current administration and those who still support the Shinawatras and their allies.

The Shinawatras were despised by many urban elite but remain popular among the rural poor. This is why the siblings and their allies have won every democratic election in Thailand since 2001. Punchada believes that the conflict between the Shinawatras' allies and the military-backed government will persist.

"I don't think the political conflict will be solved. The electoral outcome won't result to a peaceful Thai society of Thailand," she said.

Titipol said the dramatic events earlier this month, involving the potential dissolution of the party which nominated the king's sister as party candidate, may in fact spur more voters to go to the polls-if only to thwart the Shinawatras' return to power.

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