Thailand‘s new parliament is set to vote for prime minister, with retired General Prayuth Chan-ocha appearing set to stay in power thanks largely to the support of senators who were handpicked by the country’s military government.
Prayuth, who led a coup five years ago and then headed the military government’s National Council for Peace and Order, is widely expected to overcome the challenge of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a charismatic tycoon leading the anti-military bloc.
Both the elected lower house and the appointed Senate convened together at 11am (04:00 GMT) on Wednesday to decide on the prime ministerial post more than two months after the first election since the coup, a controversial poll marred by allegations of inaccurate counting and vote-buying.
Any successful candidate will need at least 376 votes, or more than half of the 750 members of the combined houses.
There are 500 seats in Thailand’s lower house – 375 directly-elected and the rest allocated according to a party list – and 250 in the upper house whose members have already been chosen by the military government and endorsed by the kind.
The pro-military camp has already gathered 150 confirmed votes in the lower house, with more expected. Together with the 250 senators’ votes for Prayuth, his victory appears certain.
For his part, Thanathorn, the leader of the progressive Future Forward Party, has some 245 legislators backing him. But he does not have the Senate’s support and is also facing disqualification over his shares in a media company.
MPs in black suits filed into their seats for the opening after several gave speeches outside.
Shortly before parliament convened, Abhisit Vejjajiva, an ex-prime minister and the former leader of the Democrat Party, announced his resignation as a member of parliament.
The move came half a day after his party, the oldest in the country, decided to join the pro-military coalition and back Prayuth as prime minister.
Abhisit said he was honouring his word that he did not support Prayuth and his continued rule. Soon after the election, Abhisit resigned as the party leader to show his responsibility for its poor electoral results.
The March 24 election was widely seen as a choice between military-government-backed rule and parties aligned with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, whose administration was toppled in 2014.
But an unexpected third force has emerged with billionaire auto parts scion Thanathorn, whose Future Forward Party won more than six million votes and 81 seats to become Thailand’s third-largest political force, behind Phalang Pracharat, the military-backed party created to support Prayuth, and Pheu Thai, which is supported by Thaksin and won the most seats in the polls.
Thanathorn, 40, is in a coalition with Pheu Thai and five other parties. In a sudden late move, they agreed on Tuesday to put him forward as the sole candidate in the vote for prime minister.
Analysts say Thanathorn is the military government’s biggest fear while also representing a fresh change for voters weary of the influence of the Shinawatra family.
“Vested interests have succeeded in vilifying and turning Thaksin into a bogeyman for urban, middle-class Thais,” Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University, told Al Jazeera last month. “Thanathorn is young, new, vivacious and a threat to that urban middle-class vote which vested interests had assumed was already conservative. Thanathorn is now a greater threat than Thaksin.”
Thanathorn, however, has been hamstrung by legal complaints that led to his suspension from parliament and a dramatic walk-out on its early sessions.
He said on Tuesday that the suspension had nothing to do with qualifying as a candidate for prime minister, and he called on swing parties to back him in the vote.
“The most important thing is to return Thailand to democracy,” he told reporters. “And to stop Prayuth to come back as prime minister.”