Thailand's multi-party democracy on full display on the streets of Bangkok ahead of May 14, 2023 elections. Image: Twitter

BANGKOK – A dynastic daughter of the billionaire, anti-coup Shinawatra family is leading certain opinion polls to become prime minister after Sunday’s (May 14) nationwide elections.

But her potential victory is far from assured due to an unelected, military-appointed Senate that will have a 250-seat vote on the kingdom’s next leader.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36 and politically inexperienced, has promised on the campaign trail to give every Thai adult the Thai baht equivalent of US$10,000 as well as make recreational cannabis illegal again. All while nursing her newborn baby boy.

To spend more time with her infant, Paetongtarn may let Peua Thai’s Srettha Thavisin, a real estate tycoon, become prime minister if the party wins and is able to form a coalition government.

Throughout the 21st century, the Shinawatras and the military have been fighting a treacherous political blood feud that has sparked new concerns of a coup if the family wins big on May 14.

The family’s dynastic grip over a large swath of opposition voters, particularly in the nation’s populous and poor northeast, worries many Thais beyond the military. A heavy turnout cast ballots during “advance voting” which began Sunday (May 7) – one week before polls close on Sunday (May 14).

After counting ballots, competing parties will wrestle to form a coalition and then announce a new prime minister, likely by September.

Voters can choose candidates and parties to fill only Parliament’s 500-member House of Representatives. The military holds sway over Parliament’s 250-seat, five-year term Senate, which has a vote on the next premier until next year.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and his recently created United Thai Nation (UTN) party are trailing in opinion polls for his reelection. Prayut, describing his pious altruism and nationalism, said in a campaign speech on May 7:

“I have performed as prime minister in the most dutiful and ethical manner during the past eight years.”

Prayut’s new United Thai Nation Party is trailing in opinion polls. Image: Twitter / Screengrab / SE Asia Globe

Prayut was armed forces chief in May 2014 when he led a bloodless coup against the elected civilian government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is Paetongtarn’s aunt.

“If I did everything for my personal gain, would I have lasted this long as prime minister?” he said.

For several years, Prayut ruled heading a junta, banning political activity, arresting civilian opponents and other harsh measures before mellowing into a civilian prime minister, elected in 2019.

“There should be no coup again,” he recently told reporters. “If any serious conflict occurs again, I don’t know how to solve it, because I have nothing to do with it now.”

Also responding to Thailand’s latest public spasm of coup anxiety, Army Chief General Narongpan Jittkaewtae told reporters on May 11: “I can assure you that what occurred in the past, the chance is zero now.”

“We have reached a point where democracy has to go ahead. Everyone should be mindful and avoid what should not be done,” the army chief said.

Old soldier Prayut presents a sanitized, dynamic, happy image of Thailand to foreign governments and investors.

Prayut enacted a 2017 constitution which strengthened the Constitutional Court’s power to dissolve political parties and banish their leaders.

The Constitution Court could dissolve Paetongtarn’s or any party committing an election infraction, engaging in conflict of interest or other illegalities before, during or after the election.

“I would expect that the Constitutional Court might find an excuse to force Thaksin’s daughter out of office before any military coup might occur,” said Paul Chambers, a social science lecturer and specialist about Thai politics at Naresuan University’s Southeast Asia center.

“If there were angry demonstrations following the ‘judicial coup,’ then there could be a military coup that would happen before the yearly military reshuffle, which regularly happens on September 30,” Chambers said in an interview.

Dangers of a coup increase exponentially if a victorious Paetongtarn allows her convicted father and his sister – former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck -– to return from self-exile without being locked up on criminal convictions or face pending corruption charges.

Paetongtarn has said she will bring her criminally-convicted, self-exiled father home to Thailand. Image: Twitter

If the Shinawatra siblings return without arrest, Thailand will be torn by those who adore Thaksin, now 73, and those who despise him. Clashes for and against him have killed hundreds in Bangkok’s streets during recent years.

Some perceive Paetongtarn as a possible place-holder for her father who, after fleeing Thailand, inspires supporters with online announcements.

Thaksin, a former police official and telecommunications tycoon, was elected prime minister in 2001 and 2005. Both Shinawatra fugitives insist charges of corruption against them are politically motivated.

Throughout the 21st century, Thailand has been going back and forth between Shinawatra family-run governments alternating with coup-installed military regimes.

Thailand’s politics have swirled with hatred, revenge, threats, elections, coups, juntas, lawsuits, imprisonments, and self-exiled civilians.

Opponents fear the Shinawatras, especially Thaksin, alleging they loot and destroy the country whenever they govern.

Supporters devoted to the Shinawatras praise Thaksin for providing universal “30 baht (88 US cents) health care” in government hospitals, easy credit for the poor, scholarships, and other populist policies.

The Shinawatras’ vote base may be split, however.

Those who want a harder assault on the military’s political power are flocking to the smaller, more liberal, Move Forward Party (MFP) led by the Harvard University-educated Pita Limjaroenrat.

Pita is much more outspoken about challenging the military and is willing to join any coalition not linked to coups or the armed forces.

“The next government must comprise parties that come from the opposition bloc – the MFP, Pheu Thai, Seri Ruam Thai and Prachachat,” Pita said on May 7.

Pita Limjaroenrat, center, is reportedly surging in opinion polls just days before the election. Image: Twitter

Pita’s apparent swelling popularity is based partly on his stance which “ruled out any partnership with the military, thus enabling his party to get the nod from many undecided voters,” Bangkok Post columnist and assistant news editor Chairith Yongpiam wrote on May 6.

Pita and his MFP “may overtake Bhum Jai Thai (BJT) as the runner-up,” enabling MFP to become the second-biggest winner in the election, following Paetongtarn’s PTP, which is expected to be number one, Chairith said.

BJT party leader and prime ministerial candidate Anutin Charnvirakul, is health minister in Prayut’s government and famous in Thailand for pushing cannabis to become legal for adults last year.

Anutin endorses cannabis for medical use only, and promises Thailand will become wealthy from growing marijuana.

Thousands of cannabis sellers opened shops across Thailand displaying expensive indica, sativa, and hybrids – smuggled from California or legally grown locally. They say tens of thousands of customers, mostly foreign tourists, are buying.

Anutin has offered to join any coalition – military or civilian – that will keep marijuana legal for adults.

Paetongtarn demands weed again be made illegal except for restricted clinics under medical staff treating patients who require it. Paetongtarn’s stance against recreational marijuana would devastate Thailand’s rapidly expanding public cannabis retail market.

Pita and his MFP are supportive of tighter-regulated recreational cannabis for adults.

Paetongtarn’s new populist scheme is to give the equivalent of $10,000 to every Thai over 16-years-old – rich or poor – to shock Thailand’s Covid-devasted economy back to life.

Prayut’s reelection prospects, meanwhile, look less certain. He is also hobbled by a political expiration date.

The Constitutional Court recently ruled Prayut held power since 2014, so he can be reelected for only two years, instead of the normal four years.

Ex-army chief Prawit Wongsuwan, born in 1945, was Prayut’s deputy prime minister and qualifies for a four-year term. Prawit insists he didn’t participate in the 2014 coup and later joined the junta.

After the election, Prawit and Prayut may combine their House seats with other current coalition parties, plus the Senate’s 250 appointees.

Prawit Wongsuwan, center, barely tracks on opinion polls projecting the next prime minister. Image: Twitter

If that isn’t enough to form a parliamentary majority, they could declare a military-dominated “minority government.”

To become prime minister, a candidate needs at least majority of 376 Parliament votes from Parliament’s 750 total. “The Senate with 250 senators will almost totally vote for Prayut or Prawit,” Chambers said.

Either would need only 126 House additional seats from current coalition parties to total 376 and become prime minister.

“That means that Peua Thai needs an extreme majority to win – 376 seats,” Chambers said. “If the Peua Thai or Move Forward Party is dissolved, then it becomes impossible for Peua Thai to form a coalition.”

PTP and MFP are also competing with each other for votes. MFP appeals to Thailand’s younger generations, including some abandoning Paetongtarn because of her anti-recreational cannabis stance.

“I will vote Peua Thai, not because I like Thaksin, but just to change this government,” said an exasperated transportation worker.

“During the past eight years, prices of food, and gasoline, and everything has increased too much. Pita is good too, but Pita and their MFP are mostly for young people,” the middle-aged man said.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available here.