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Thai election turns into 3-way race as Thaksin camp stirs

Ex-premier's party picks leader to face pro-junta group and moderates

Viroj Pao-in, middle, was elected as Pheu Thai Party leader on October.28 at a party meeting in Bangkok.(Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BANGKOK -- Political activity is stirring again in Thailand as parties prepare for a general election shaping up to be a three-sided contest that will determine to what extent the ruling military junta retains influence after a return to democracy.

The Pheu Thai Party, which consists of supporters of ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in exile, selected a new leader on Oct. 28. Acting leader Viroj Pao-in will officially head the party during a general election seen coming next year.

"The big task is to prepare for the upcoming election," the 84-year-old Viroj said after being chosen. "We are ready to act strongly."

Viroj briefly served as deputy prime minister in 2000, before Thaksin's government. He was a police lieutenant general before entering politics.

Pheu Thai had been leaderless while the junta banned political activities after a May 2014 coup that ousted Thaksin's sister, then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Only recently has the government led by former general Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha allowed some political activities, such as choosing party leaders, to resume.

Pheu Thai, a successor to the Thaksin political movement that won back-to-back elections after 2001, held a majority in the House of Representatives until the 2014 coup abolished the body. This year, after delays in committing to restore democracy, the junta passed a bill paving the way for a general election.

The law is expected to come into effect in early December, and an election must be held within 150 days of that date. Thais expect there will be an election between February and May next year.

But Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup, himself poses a risk for the party over which he is thought to retain influence.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha walks next to his cardboard character at Government House in Bangkok. The former general seems to harbor ambitions to remain in politics after the next general election.   © Reuters

Thaksin recently told Japanese media in Hong Kong that he is confident that anti-junta parties including Pheu Thai will win 300 lower house seats out of 500. The party has strong support from farmers in rural northeastern Thailand, where income levels are relatively low.

After the interview, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan urged the Election Commission to look into whether Thaksin exercises control over the affairs of Pheu Thai from abroad. If a probe takes place and finds the former leader still retains influence, it could lead to dissolution of the party.

Pheu Thai is aware of such a risk. The party did not elect a stronger candidate to lead, Sudarat Keyuraphan, the former minister of public health.

If the junta decides to dissolve the party, executive members are likely to be banned from political activities for several years. A source said the party chose not to elect Sudarat so that she would be able to remain in politics even if the party is dissolved.

Other signs of a political revival can be seen in Thailand. In March, automotive industry billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit founded a new party named the Future Forward Party that also stands in opposition to the junta. Thanathorn is an executive of Thai Summit Group, a leading auto parts maker.

Adding to the speculation was the formation in late September of the Palang Pracharat Party, which is said to favor Prayuth to serve as prime minister after the restoration of democracy. Uttama Savanayana, the current minister of industry, became the party's leader, and three other cabinet members have executive seats reserved for them.

In mid-October, Prayuth made his social media debut by opening Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, a move seen aimed at getting a leg up on potential opponents at a time when political activities are still mostly banned. The former general appears to harbor ambitions to remain in politics after the election.

Palang Pracharat may gain support from industries that prefer the status quo rather than pure democracy, as the party is likely to maintain major investment programs such as the Eastern Economic Corridor. The party is likely to gain votes from people who support the current government, while Pheu Thai and Future Forward will seek to harness opposition sentiment.

But other groups may end up holding the deciding vote. The Democrat Party in particular could play an important role in forming a coalition after the election. In the current electoral system introduced by the junta, neither pro- nor anti-junta parties are likely to secure a majority in the lower house. For groups like the Democrat Party, the priority may be not winning the election outright but forming a coalition in which it has the largest say.

It remains unclear whether Thailand can hold an orderly election or whether the outcome will be honored. In June, Prayuth said the poll would take place after the king's coronation ceremony, but the date has yet to be determined.

Army chief Apirat Kongsompong warned that he could not rule out another coup after the promised election if it results in riots and violent protests.

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