Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha has issued a decree to dissolve parliament, paving the way for elections in May as the former coup leader seeks to extend military-backed rule despite his widespread unpopularity.
Prayuth, 68, has submitted the decree for royal endorsement, he told reporters during a trip to Chiang Mai on Friday. The order, that may be published in the Royal Gazette on March 20, comes just days before House of Representatives’ four-year term ends, as Prayuth buys time to campaign and recruit members to run for his new party, which lists him as the sole prime minister candidate.
By law, a national vote must be held within 60 days of the dissolution of parliament. The Election Commission has initially penciled in polling for May 7 but a final date will be confirmed later on.
Prayuth is betting the return of millions of tourists and billions of dollars in stimulus programs will boost Southeast Asia’s second largest economy and his election prospects. However, he has to grapple with voter discontent arising from living costs remaining elevated even though inflation weakened to a 13-month low last month.
“This election will be a battle of ideology that will determine whether Thailand will stay on the side of conservatism or sway more to the liberal side,” said Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. “But the military is so deeply rooted in Thai politics that it would take a super landslide for the opposition to bring about military reform, which is unlikely to happen.”
There’s also the wild card of at least 3 million first-time voters, who make up more than 5% of those eligible to cast ballots. This group would have come of age during the unprecedented youth protest in 2020 that was demanding Prayuth’s resignation and reforms to curb the power of the monarchy — a longstanding taboo in Thai society.
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The stakes are rising for Prayuth who wants to extend his eight-year grip on power — first as a coup leader in 2014 and then as an elected civilian head. However, his viability has been called into question due to a constitutional term limit that gives him two more years to be prime minister.
This was part of the reason the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party, which dominates the coalition, picked another prime minister candidate. Prayuth was forced to move to a new conservative party that made him their top candidate, signaling shifting alliances.
Prayuth also faces tough competition beyond the royalist-military establishment. In recent opinion polls, he’s trailed significantly behind opposition Pheu Thai Party’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a coup in 2006. Parties affiliated with Thaksin have won the most seats in every Thai election over the last two decades.
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Pre-election surveys project opposition parties to hold an edge over the ruling coalition but the rules are stacked in favor of military-backed groups. That’s because the 2017 constitution gives the 250-member Senate, comprising mostly of establishment allies, the power to vote in the next prime minister until early 2024.
Prayuth is counting on support from this group to keep him ahead in the race to become prime minister. Much of this will depend on how his conservative party performs against Palang Pracharath and the opposition led by Pheu Thai in the parliamentary elections.
There are 400 constituency seats up for grabs as well as 100 party-list seats which are allocated based on the proportion of votes that each party receives. The Election Commission has said preliminary outcome of the vote will be known on the same night of the elections, but government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said last month that official results may not be known until early July.
That means new parliament may hold its first meeting in mid-July and the selection of the next prime minister could take place at the end of the month. In the mean time, Prayuth’s government will act as caretaker until a new prime minister and cabinet is sworn in, likely in early August, according to Anucha.