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Nikkei Editorial

Use the Thai vote to bridge social divides

Now is the chance to lay the foundations for a better nation

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha aims to stay in office after the country returns to civilian rule. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Thailand's military government has announced that the country's long-awaited general election will be held on March 24. Though the vote is meant to formally end five years of military rule and return the country to a civilian government, it is hard to say whether the election will usher in a truly stable democracy.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the coup as an army general to seize power in May 2014, has long vowed to hold a general election as soon as possible to transfer power to a civilian government. But the junta, which he heads, has repeatedly held off on making good on the pledge, apparently out of concern that nationwide elections would turn out in favor of political forces loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that were ousted in the coup.

By finally setting a date, the military government could be signaling that it is confident it will survive the vote and stay in power. That confidence is likely underpinned by an array of constitutional revisions that make it difficult for the pro-Thaksin camp to achieve a stand-alone majority in the lower house of the National Assembly. The changes also allow the upper house -- nearly all members of which will be junta appointees -- to play a major role in nominating the prime minister.

To counter these steps, the forces loyal to Thaksin have pulled out all the stops to win a majority. Their tactics include creating new political parties allied with the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party and an attempt -- since abandoned -- to nominate Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, the elder sister of the king, as a prime ministerial candidate.

Suffice it to say, a great deal of uncertainty lies over not only how the election will play out, but also where Thai politics will go after power is handed over to a civilian government. The biggest concern is a possible flare-up of the street protests that roiled Thailand for over a decade.

At the root of the often-bloody clashes is the rift between the largely impoverished pro-Thaksin Thais and the traditional political elite. Ensuring political and social stability requires narrowing the divides between the social classes.

For years now, experts have pointed out the need for Thailand to more effectively use property taxes for income redistribution. They have also urged the government to do more to promote local autonomy, which facilitates administrative decentralization. All Thai political forces should be doing everything they can to make the election -- and a peaceful return of power to a civilian government -- the first step toward a structural overhaul of the country.

The military government of Thailand, a core member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has pursued a noticeably pro-China diplomatic policy, partly because the U.S. and European states have been critical of the coup.

As one of Thailand's major economic partners, Japan should, first and foremost, urge its government to ensure a fair election and, second, redouble efforts to deepen its ties with the country after it returns to civilian rule.

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