Thailand’s political hopefuls register for May election

Published : 04 Apr 2023 08:45 PM

Hundreds of would-be lawmakers in Thailand on Monday began the official registration process for the upcoming general election, a vote that will pit supporters of an exiled prime minister against the conservative political establishment and its allies in the military.

Dressed in T-shirts and jackets in their party colors, and backed by groups of noisy supporters, the political hopefuls pushed their way past a throng of journalists to cram into a Bangkok stadium and complete the paperwork to qualify for the May 14 election.

Underscoring the political tensions, four protesters under the watchful eyes of two dozen police officers held up signs demanding changes to Article 112 of the constitution, which carries harsh penalties for defaming the country’s monarch.

Calls for reform of the law have increased in recent years but remain a major taboo in a country where the royal family has traditionally been seen as untouchable.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, the incumbent prime minister, recently joined a new party, the United Thai Nation Party, and needs its slate of candidates to perform strongly to bolster his bid to recapture the top spot. He first became prime minister in 2014 when as the army commander he led a coup that ousted the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

Her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist, was ousted as prime minister in an earlier coup in 2006. He remains in self-exile to avoid serving time for a criminal conviction he says was politically motivated.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin’s daughter, and her Pheu Thai Party have a huge lead, according to opinion polls. But Thailand’s electoral system means contenders have to win by a wide margin to be sure of forming the government and claiming the prime minister’s position.

“I believe the strong point of Pheu Thai is the party itself, not me. The party popularity is ahead of myself,” Paetongtarn said. “I believe the people choose the party because of our policy. That’s our strong point.”

Polls show the leader of the Move Forward Party, Pita Limjaroenrat, leading Paetongtarn in the capital, Bangkok. The party has a progressive agenda that’s popular with younger voters. But its politics alienate it from mainstream conservative Thai policies, lessening its chances of joining a governing coalition.

Completing the roster of heavyweights was Prawit Wongsuwan, who served as deputy prime minister under Prayuth. He now heads Palang Pracharath, the largest party in the outgoing governing coalition. He’s seen as a formidable political operator, though both he and his party appear to be extremely unpopular with voters, according to recent opinion polls.

Up for grabs are 400 directly elected seats while a further 100 seats are decided by proportional representation.

The prime minister’s position is chosen in the weeks following the polls through a combined vote of the lower house and the 250-strong appointed Senate. The inclusion of the Senate is seen by many as controversial because, though nominally independent, its members have a record of voting as a bloc in favor of a conservative agenda.