Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is bidding to transform his ruling junta into a democratically elected government at March 24 polls. Photo: Facebook

When Thailand goes to the polls on March 24, voters will face the choice of a continuation of de facto military rule or a true new democratic beginning. Whether they get what they choose could be the difference between stability and chaos in the year ahead.

Coup-maker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is bidding to complete his self-professed transformation from soldier to politician at the front of the new Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP), a military proxy whose name draws on his ruling junta’s main economic policy platform.

On the other opposed side is Peua Thai, the party aligned with self-exiled, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his likewise military-deposed exiled sister Yingluck Shinawatra which under various monikers has won every election staged in the kingdom since 2001.

While most analysts, observers and polls expect Peua Thai to win by far the most votes and seats, they likewise expect Prayut to leverage new military crafted election rules to stay on as premier in a minority government coalition. How long such an arrangement would last is unclear, but some Bangkok-based diplomats are already talking about new elections in 2020 due to an anticipated deadlock later this year.

All of the main contesting parties, including the Democrats, Bhumjaithai and Future Forward, are campaigning on a medley of pro-poor policies, ranging from guaranteed income schemes to money-giving welfare cards to a high hike in minimum wages.

While all of those vows draw on Peua Thai’s past winning populism, it’s not clear to most observers that any party, not least PPRP, will make inroads into Peua Thai’s north and northeast strongholds, vote-rich but economically poor regions where the Shinawatra clan brand still sells and elections are traditionally won and lost.

Thailand’s 2011 constituency election results. Image: Twitter

Indeed, Prayut’s junta has likely done more to alienate than ingratiate himself in the regions, first by rescinding most of Peua Thai’s pro-poor policies, and second through police state repression that has squeezed tightest Peua Thai politicians, harassment many are now angling to leverage into anti-junta votes.

A military-designed new election system will trim the number of constituency seats up for electoral grabs from 375 to 350, with the biggest cuts in seats coming in the northeast (126 to 116), north (36 to 33) and central region areas (82 to 76) which Peua Thai carried at the 2011 election the party resoundingly won.

A new party list system, where losing votes will for the first time tally towards the distribution of 150 seats, is also expected to disadvantage Peua Thai while favoring medium-sized parties such as Bhumjaithai and the upstart, anti-junta Future Forward, which is fielding candidates across all 350 constituencies on the ballot.

PPRP leaders have boldly predicted the party will win as many as 150 out of 500 seats, while cocksure yes-men and cheerleading advisors in the Prime Minister’s Office regularly guarantee Prayut that victory is assured. But it’s not clear to independent observers from which geographical region(s) PPRP and its many lesser known candidates will win any surefire votes.

PPRP is expected to cannibalize some votes from the Democrats in the less populous southern region (50 seats), the consistently second-placing party’s traditional vote bank, as well as in pockets of the central region (82 seats) pockets.

But Future Forward is also expected to place well in those same regions, especially among youth and urban progressive voters the Democrats have traditionally carried but could lose this time due to voter perceptions it paved the way for Prayut’s 2014 coup.

Former Thai prime minister and Democratic Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva at a campaign rally on March 2, 2019, ahead of the March 24 general election. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohala

One PPRP strategist says the party also hopes to make inroads in the east, west and lower north swing regions that voted Democrat in 2011. Several politicians have defected from the Democrats and Peua Thai to PPRP in those same regions, some by choice, some reportedly under duress.

Yet independent analysts doubt that the junta’s actual policies have steered a winning course in the region. The central and eastern regions are famously home to many entrepreneur farmers, known for keeping one foot in traditional agriculture and another in modern services between planting and harvest seasons.

Critics say the junta’s “pracharat” policy, loosely translated as “people’s state”, has in reality favored big over small business. That, they say, has opened the way for Bangkok’s “five families” – namely the Charoen Pokphand Group, ThaiBev, Central Group, Boonrawd and King Power – to more deeply penetrate rural areas in the name of modernization, a drive that has muscled many grass roots businesses out of local markets.

If that perception has taken root, as some analysts and academics suggest, PPRP could perform more poorly in the central and lower eastern regions where its strategists have committed the most effort and resources, and the party apparently expects to win big.

Under the new election rules, designed specifically to thwart another Peua Thai landslide, no single party is expected to win an outright 251-seat lower house majority. The math is further skewed against a Peua Thai-led coalition through a military-appointed 250-member Senate, which will vote with the 500-member lower house in selecting the next prime minister.

Peua Thai party suporters display placards during a campaign rally in Bangkok,February 15, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Anusak Laowilas

The junta-selected upper house, whose appointees are currently under review while junta deputy leader Prawit Wongsuwan has assured it will “be controlled,” is expected to vote unanimously for Prayut as premier, meaning his PPRP and coalition partners will only need 126 of 500 lower house seats to form a minority government.

The junta’s hand-picked senators must finally receive royal endorsement, meaning King Vajiralongkorn could potentially propose more neutral legislators if he so chose.

But after the February 8 fiasco that saw his sister Princess Ubonrat Mahidol nominated as the Thaksin-aligned Thai Raksa Chart Party’s prime ministerial candidate, a move Vajiralongkorn deemed as “extremely inappropriate” in an address the same day, it’s not clear his royal palace is keen to intervene in politics again any time soon barring a major crisis.

One investment banker who closely tracks Thai politics says the market sees Prayut staying on as a near 100% likely scenario, despite Democrat and Bhumjaithai party leaders recently saying they would not vote Prayut to the premiership, campaign trail stands many expect both to abandon as post-election horse-trading begins.

While that may be the mainstream poll prediction, it is pregnant with political risks. If PPRP wins a mere 40-50 seats, as some anticipate, while Peua Thai carries 200 or even more, as many expect, the party could readily and credibly rail that the military stole the election in defiance of the people’s will.

A similar battle cry could ring out if Future Forward, widely expected to join post-election forces with Peua Thai, is dissolved on what many observers see as a flimsy campaign trail charge that really aims to silence the military’s strongest and most threatening critic.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, greets supporters on arrival at the Office of the Attorney General in Bangkok on February 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwanrumpha

The Election Commission will decide if party leader, billionaire industrialist Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, will be indicted two days after the March 24 election is held for telling reporters that PPRP has poached politicians from other parties, an established fact widely reported in local media.

If Future Forward is nixed, PPRP and the Democrats would likely benefit the most by scooping up its expected rich store of party list seats. A Prince of Songkhla University poll showed 16.1% of southern voters favor Thanathorn as prime minister, followed by Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva (12%) and Prayut (10.3%) in third. (Over 41% of the survey’s respondents were “undecided” when the polls was conducted).

Whether Peua Thai or Future Forward would be willing to press their case of a military-stolen election through street mobilizations is unclear, though any such protest wouldn’t likely be articulated until the prime minister vote is held in late May. All political sides are expected to tone down their rhetoric and rally loyally around the royal coronation ceremony to be staged from May 4-6.

Future Forward is expected to win big among six to seven million first-time voters, a new generation being galvanized on an anti-junta and pro-change ticket that some suggest could be lured, if called, to the streets, especially if the party is banned for bogus reasons.

The defamation accusation against Future Forward also comes amid speculation spread on social media and harbored among soldier advisors in the Prime Minister’s Office that certain of its party members secretly hold anti-monarchy views. Thanathorn has publicly denied the anti-royal accusations.

If Peua Thai intends to make a post-election stir, it isn’t apparent on its mostly cool and collected campaign trail and social media streams. Both of the party’s prime ministerial candidates, Sudarat Keyuraphan and Chadchart Sittiput, have studiously avoided any anti-junta rhetoric or accusations that would risk a party ban.

Thaksin, who is barred from any association with Peua Thai as a fugitive from Thai justice, recently told one foreign mediator that he expects – and will greatly relish – a Peua Thai win that repudiates the junta’s best efforts to erase his legacy.

Peua Thai stalwarts have indicated if relegated to the opposition they would move with alacrity to knock a PPRP-led minority government from power via a lower house no-confidence motion that would expose Prayut to unprecedented scrutiny and a democratic vote he would lose without the appointed Senate’s numbers.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha waves for the cameras on the campaign trail on March 20, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad

But that may not be the slam dunk strategy it appears. One well-placed source suggests PPRP would pre-empt any potential no-confidence vote, including if Peua Thai moves to block the passage of its government budget when due in July, by dissolving parliament and calling new elections in 2020.

That would allow Prayut and PPRP to roll over the 2019 budget and rule in a caretaker capacity until new polls could be held, which without any substantial changes to election rules and the appointed Senate’s kingmaker role would likely return Prayut to the premiership, in what some analysts predict would be a costly battle of political attrition through repeated elections.

Prayut and his PPRP allies have campaigned in large measure on a stability narrative, a popular junta refrain that emphasizes the political calm his heavy-handed regime has maintained after nearly a decade of revolving and debilitating street protests that crippled successive elected governments.

While Prayut’s likely return to the premiership as a democratic rather than coup-installed prime minister would lend his leadership and legacy long-craved international legitimacy, it’s not clear how the until now largely unchallenged former soldier will cope in a new era of noisy, fractious and unstable democracy.

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