Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is gaining ground on opposition frontrunner Paetongtarn Shinawatra as the country moves toward elections later this year, according to a new poll about who should be Thailand’s next leader. A survey released yesterday by Super Poll, a private polling company, found that Prayut, a former general who led a military coup in 2014 was the preferred choice of 25.7 percent of the 1,571 respondents, who were surveyed on February 17-18.
Coming in the first place was Paetongtarn, the daughter of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and standard bearer of the opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP), who was backed by 28.5 percent. She and Prayut were followed by Anutin Charnivakul of the Bhumjaithai Party (21.2 percent), who is currently serving as health minister in Prayut’s cabinet and Pita Limjaroenrat of the opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) (14.4 percent). These were trailed by three other candidates that polled in the low single figures.
The poll also showcased an apparent geographic gap in the support for the various candidates. It showed Prayut as the top choice among respondents in the capital Bangkok, with 33 percent in favor of the 68-year-old extending his term in office, significantly ahead of Paetongtarn (21.3 percent). Outside of Bangkok, the preferences were flipped: Paetongtarn was the choice of 29.9 percent, compared with 24.3 percent for Prayut. The survey did not specifically measure attitudes in the north of Thailand, the base of the Shinawatra family, and the northeast, but based on past election returns, it could be expected that the PTP would enjoy larger support in these regions.
While this will come as welcome news for the former general, who has joined the newly formed pro-establishment United Thai Nation (UTN) party ahead of the election, it is hard to know how much to read into this. Similar polls conducted late last year by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) found Prayut commanding less than half of the support of Paetongtarn. One conducted by NIDA in October showed that Pita of the MFP was the most popular candidate for prime minister among Bangkok residents, though this month’s Super Poll survey showed him languishing in fourth place in the capital.
This divergence could reflect the inaccuracy of polls, or perhaps the fact that Prayut has enjoyed a bump in popularity after joining the UTN in early January. It could also reflect the unusually fluid and fragmented nature of the Thai political landscape, following the passage of new electoral rules that have incentivized a rash of party defections and realignments.
The Super Poll results suggest that the election – the exact date of the polls remains unclear, but it has to be held by May – will be a close run, and potentially bitter, fight. Paetongtarn and the PTP party say that they plan to run a similar populist campaign to those that have catapulted the party and its forerunners to victory in every election since 2001.
Every time that Thaksinite parties have formed government, however, they have been undermined, and in some cases removed by legal or military force, by the conservative establishment that is closely associated with the military and monarchy, of whom Prayut is a long and loyal servant. Indeed, Prayut led the country’s most recent coup, in 2014, which removed Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra from power.