Thailand’s parliament has been dissolved by a government decree, setting the stage for a general election in May that will once again pit the country’s conservative establishment against an opposition led by the representatives of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The dissolution of the House of Representatives, which came just a few days before the end of its four-year term, was initiated late last week by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and approved by King Vajiralongkorn of Thailand yesterday.
The Election Commission is expected to announce the election date this week or early next week. The constitution states that an election must take place between 45 and 60 days from the dissolution of parliament. Since Thai elections are usually held on Sundays, May 7 or May 14 figure as the most likely dates for the polls.
Despite Thailand’s fragmented political landscape, the main storyline will be the same that has played out since 2001: a struggle between the opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP), the electoral vehicle of Thaksin, and the various parties associated with the country’s conservative establishment: i.e., the military and the monarchy.
On Friday, the PTP revealed its slate of parliamentary candidates and outlined its policy pledges in what The Associated Press described as a “well-choreographed show of confidence ahead of the approaching general election.” The party’s main candidate for prime minister is expected to be Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra. who outlined a number of policies, including improving labor conditions, guaranteeing a higher minimum wage, reducing pollution, and turning Thailand into a financial technology hub.
Parties associated with Thaksin have won every general election since 2001, but have been removed from power via a variety of underhand means, from military coups (in 2006 and 2014) to questionable judicial rulings. Paetongtarn has said on several occasions that she hopes to repeat these victories this year. “I hope everyone wins their elections by a landslide, winning the people’s hearts by a lot,” she told assembled candidates on Friday. “Together we will fix the problems that have piled up over the last eight years, make them diminish and disappear.”
On the conservative side, 69-year-old Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is hoping to gain an electoral mandate to extend his time in office, which dates back to the military coup against Thaksin’s sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2014. Prayut led the coup and then ruled Thailand for five years at the head of a military junta. He did not run for office in the 2019 election but was selected prime minister by parliament after the army-backed Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) formed a coalition government.
Having developed a taste for politics, Prayut has since decamped from PPRP to join the recently formed United Thai Nation Party (UTNP), another pro-establishment party, and is likely to figure as its prime ministerial candidate. However, he faces a challenge from his longtime comrade-in-arms and deputy prime minister, 77-year-old Prawit Wongsuwan, who has been named the PPRP’s candidate for prime minister.
However, the constitution passed by Prayut’s military government in 2017 was drafted implicitly to prevent another Thaksinite resurgence. As The Associated Press explains, 400 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives will be selected by first-past-the-post races in each constituency, while the remaining 100 will be selected by party lists. So far so fair. But the constitution states that the prime minister will then be chosen by the vote of a combined session of the newly elected lower house and the 250-seat Senate, a conservative body whose members are appointed, mostly from the military.
Since the Senate is widely expected to vote as a bloc against anyone from Thaksin’s side of politics – indeed, some senators have explicitly stated as much – there is a good chance that even if it wins the most seats, the PTP will once again be shut out of power. The only way that the PTP can overcome this structural handicap is to win an overwhelming landslide: to gain a veto-proof victory, a party or coalition needs to win 376 of the 500 seats in the lower house, rather than a simple plurality of 251.
Whether this is within reach of PTP remains to be seen, but the lesson from the past quarter century of Thai politics is that the closer the Shinawatras get to effective power, the more likely the conservative establishment is to strike back through whatever means it has at its disposal.
With another Shinawatra facing off against the latest avatars of Thailand’s “network monarchy,” observers could be forgiven for thinking that the country’s politics is stuck in a doom-loop of political challenge and reaction. As the American pro-baseballer Yogi Berra once famously quipped, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”