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Thai election

Five Thai election contenders to watch on day of verdict

Parties and leaders jostle for position ahead of possible coalition scramble

Five players likely to feature prominently in the final phase of the campaign and possible post-election coalition talks. (Photos by Nikkei/Reuters)

BANGKOK -- Thailand is holding its first general election in eight years on Sunday. As the country looks to restore democracy after nearly five years under military rule, the race is expected to be tight. Analysts are predicting that no single party will win a majority in the lower house.

Who are the key figures in this political drama, which has already been full of surprises?

Here are five players likely to feature prominently in possible post-election coalition talks.

Prayuth Chan-ocha

The former Royal Thai Army commander-in-chief, who led the 2014 coup, has run the country as prime minister throughout the junta's rule. He hopes to keep his post even after the restoration of a civil government.

The pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party, led by the military government's former Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana, nominated the 64-year-old to be its sole prime ministerial candidate. Before becoming prime minister, Prayuth spent almost his entire career as a serviceman.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Thailand's new constitution gives the party a built-in electoral advantage. The prime minister will be elected by a majority vote of 500 lower house members and 250 upper house members combined. Since almost all the upper house members will be nominated by the junta, the party will need only 126 seats from the lower house to elect Prayuth.

Uttama said he is confident the party will secure 120 to 130 seats. But he also said he will seek to form a coalition with other parties, as forming a government with a lower house minority would not promise political stability. As a military man, Prayuth is widely seen as autocratic, but lately he has been striving to appear more approachable.

The Palang Pracharat Party's platform focuses on what it calls practical solutions. To address rising inequality, it intends to increase the number of state welfare-card holders by 2 million to 3 million, on top of the current 14.5 million. The party also believes in using technology to promote fairer income distribution. In insists effort must be made to enhance the skills of the population in order to create more opportunities.

The party says it will push through all the major investment and infrastructure projects the current junta has initiated, such as the regime's Eastern Economic Corridor high-tech hub.

Sudarat Keyuraphan

The former health minister is the premier candidate of the Pheu Thai Party -- the core party among anti-junta allies backed by supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Sudarat entered politics four years after earning an MBA from Chulalongkorn University's Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration. She later joined Thaksin's camp. She is popular among farmers in the north and northeast -- Pheu Thai's strongholds -- where many feel an almost familial affinity for the 57-year-old, just as they did Thaksin's sister Yingluck, the prime minister before the junta took over.

The Pheu Thai Party's de facto leader, Sudarat Keyuraphan (Photo by Hiroshi Kotani)

A second Pheu Thai prime minister candidate, Chadchart Sttipunt, is a former transport minister known for his policy chops. He also bears watching.

Pheu Thai is projected to win around 200 seats, the most for any single party. As the election system was designed to prevent one party from winning big, Thaksin's supporters set up small parties as a workaround, to give themselves a better chance to cobble together a majority. But the odds of that happening decreased after Thai Raksa Chart, one of the allies, was hit with a disbandment order from the Constitutional Court over its attempt to nominate Princess Ubolratana, the king's sister, as its premier candidate.

Sudarat has said she can work with any party that does not support the junta to form a coalition.

Pheu Thai is focusing on the poor. For the short term, it has promised voters it would raise the price of major agricultural products such as rice, rubber and sugar. The Thaksin-linked party has also suggested creating a fund to help farmers shift to value-added organic products.

The party questions some of the junta's big infrastructure moves. It plans to review and revise the Eastern Economic Corridor, high-speed rail projects and a planned airport link.

Abhisit Vejjajiva

The 54-year-old Democrat Party leader was Thailand's prime minister from December 2008 to August 2011. Born and educated in England, he holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy, politics and economics, along with a master's degree in economics, from St. John's College of the University of Oxford. In 1983, he took a gap year to travel to Thailand with his friend Boris Johnson, who later became the mayor of London and the U.K.'s foreign minister.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

The Democrat Party is favored by the urban establishment, which includes members of the military, and also has strongholds in the south. However, the party is in a difficult position, as many supporters hailing from the armed forces may opt to vote for the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party instead. Last year, Abhisit said he will resign if his party wins fewer than 100 seats in the lower house. The Democrat leader has openly said he does not support Prayuth staying in power and wants to form the core of a liberal democratic government.

The party says it would amend outdated legislation and redistribute power in order to address persistent inequality. It also seeks to promote greater political decentralization to large suburban cities, so that local decisions can be made swiftly. It advocates more support for the poor, including a minimum wage increase.

The Democrat Party is one of the few that has revealed concrete foreign policy plans. It wants to see a more cohesive Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and suggests negotiating with China or multinational corporations as a bloc to strike better deals.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit

The 40-year-old auto parts billionaire is the founder and leader of the Future Forward Party, formed in March 2018. Thanathorn is a strong believer in democracy and is staunchly anti-junta: One of his party's main goals is the demilitarization of Thai politics to finally put a stop to repeated coups.

Since Future Forward is new, it is harder to predict how many seats it might win. Some opinion polls suggest it will only capture a few; others point to around 50.

Future Forward Party founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit   © Reuters

This much seems clear: The party's and Thanathorn's straightforward, outspoken approach has attracted young voters who will be casting ballots for the first time. They account for roughly 10% of the electorate.

The party scored a 70% endorsement in an opinion poll of students at the highly regarded Chulalongkorn University, a local TV station reported. This suggests Future Forward could be a dark horse.

Thanathorn insists on slashing the military's budget through various measures, including halving the number of officers. The party also wants to review a tank contract with China to see if it could be amended or canceled. Future Forward's basic stance is that the centralization of power among bureaucrats and military leaders has fostered corruption, and that the armed forces should be under civilian control.

Yet, Thanathorn's political career may be in danger after the election. He faces criminal charges, along with two other Future Forward executives, for posting allegedly false information about the junta online. If convicted, he would be disqualified from politics.

Anutin Charnvirakul

The 53-year-old leader of the midsize Bhumjaithai Party loves to fly. He made his name as a successful construction businessman, and now crisscrosses the country in his own plane for campaigning.

Bhumjaithai secured 34 of 500 lower house seats in the 2011 election. With its stronghold in the northeast still up for grabs, Anutin is targeting 50 to 60 seats this time around.

Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul   © Reuters

Anutin's party also supports a four-day workweek and the legalization of ride-hailing services.

In the past, the party served as a swing voter in parliament, and it could be poised to play kingmaker again as other parties scurry to form a coalition.

Bhumjaithai's platform is unique, if not eccentric. The party promotes cannabis farming, now that the country has legalized marijuana for medical and research use. The party insists the crop would help farmers earn more than other conventional Thai agricultural goods.

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