Bangkok, Thailand – As Thais celebrated the Songkran festival last month by soaking each other in a barrage of water fights, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was hoping the occasion would help rescue his lacklustre campaign for re-election.
Donning a bright Hawaiian shirt and armed with a massive blue water gun Prayuth, the army chief-turned-politician who overthrew Yingluck Shinawatra’s government in a 2014 coup, made a surprise appearance at Bangkok’s Khao San Road, joining startled revellers in the traditional water fights that mark the festival.
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Thailand’s May 14 elections will determine the Southeast Asian country’s political and foreign policy over the next few years, as the quasi-military government faces growing domestic discontent, security pressures from neighbouring Myanmar and increasing rivalry between the United States and China.
Under Prayuth, Thailand has moved closer to China, abstained on the United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and embraced Myanmar’s coup leaders. But all could change if he is replaced.
Opinion 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 this week gave birth to a baby boy, is Yingluck’s niece and the daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was also removed in a coup.
Despite continued crackdowns on opposition parties, Pheu Thai and Move Forward, have proved remarkably resilient and analysts are anxious about a big political showdown.
But reports that PTP, which grew out of previous Thaksin-linked parties, might be prepared to do a deal with the military parties has caused alarm among some young, progressive voters.
“I’ll vote for the MFP because they stand firm with democracy and won’t collude with those involved in coup d’états. They have a proper policy manifesto that seeks 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 is going to cast the second vote of her life, said she would not vote for PTP because “it’s time to have new people, new parties, and a new way of conducting politics,” adding that “the old style no longer fits”.
That thirst for change was clear in the 2019 election when the Future Forward Party, founded by charismatic entrepreneur Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, stunned Thailand’s ruling elite by coming third.
Following the elections, the authorities moved to ban Thanathorn from politics and break up the party, which eventually led to the creation of MFP with a similar reform plan.
Meanwhile, young people continued to agitate for change, leading large-scale protests in Bangkok that challenged the traditional elite and confronted once-taboo issues such as reform of the monarchy.
Rawipa, a Bangkok resident in her mid-20s, also said she would be backing the MFP.
“I’m rooting for MFP and support Pita as PM. I used to support the PTP but their policies and communications are too desperate. MFP has taken over as the bearer of progressivism,” Rawipa told Al Jazeera.
“Thai people have been more active in politics over the past few years. I doubt Prayuth and his comrades could deny the will of the people forever,” she said, adding that there was widespread resentment against his governance.
Rawipa also wants to reform the political system to guard against future coups and populist leaders.
“This is also why I switched to back MFP. Thailand doesn’t need personality-driven politics,” she said, referring to the dynastic politics of Thaksin and his family.
‘Dangerous for Thailand’
With PTP and MFP campaigning energetically for votes, it is easy to forget that Thailand’s military is a crucial element in the country’s parliamentary arithmetic.
The outcome of the poll will be decided not only by the 500 people elected to the House of Representatives but also by the 250 military-appointed Senators. That means the two main pro-democracy parties and their allies may need more than 75 percent of the seats (376) to be in a position to form a government.
That is based on the premise that opposition politicians and parties will not be dissolved or barred from taking their seats by the authorities post-election.
Prayuth is chief of the royalist United Thai Nation Party, while Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, also a former army commander-in-chief, is leading the Palang Pracharath (PPRP), the military party that Prayuth set up as a vehicle for his 2019 campaign. Both men have denied rumours of a rift.
Speaking in an interview with Thai PBS last month, Prayuth said, “I am confident that we will win at least 25 seats”, referring to the minimum number of seats required for a party to nominate a candidate for the top job.
Earlier, the prime minister said his next administration would continue the work of its predecessors.
“The most important thing is to defend the country and protect the nation’s main institution. Please trust me as you’ve always done,” Prayuth said.
Prawit, meanwhile, has touted his party’s commitment to eradicating poverty and resolving land and water problems.
“People will face no droughts. They will have land where they can make a living… We’ll do everything to eradicate poverty. If the PPRP wins, we’ll lift 20 million people out of poverty,” he was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post at a policy launch in February.
The vote will determine if the kind of military-royalist conservative rule epitomised 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, warned Thitinan Pongsudhirak from Chulalongkorn University.
“If this election is subverted again and Thailand ends up with a similar military-backed administration – in a fashion like the 2019 polls – there will be further erosion of public trust in the political leadership,” Thitinan, an influential expert on Thai and regional politics, explained.
“Look at the crisis in neighbouring Myanmar. It’s not inconceivable that a similar crisis can take place in Thailand,” he added, referring to the February 2021 coup in the neighbouring country.
Many worry a divided Thailand, at risk of another military power grab, will struggle to deal with the issues facing the country and the region.
Thailand has accumulated a rising public debt of more than 5 trillion baht ($148bn) during Prayuth’s administration, which will run on as the nation 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.
“There will be changes because 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 policies were currently defined by the “avoidance of [a] foreign policy stand and commitment or doing nothing in order to not rock the boat domestically and internationally”.
With the campaign now in its final stages, the reformist parties look set to win the most votes.
Zach Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, said it was likely the Senate would vote en bloc to prevent Paetongtarn and the Pheu Thai from forming a government.
“The military hand-picked the senators for one purpose only: to exorcise the Thaksins from Thai politics,” he said.
But analysts say the military will need 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 the already-deep divisions. Young people in particular will feel more and more disillusioned with the establishment. This is dangerous for Thailand,” Michael Ng, the former deputy head of the Hong Kong government’s office in Bangkok, told Al Jazeera.