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Thai election

Five things to know as Thai election race enters final month

There's still time for more twists after princess's disqualification

An anti-government protester in Bangkok in 2014: The junta designed Thailand's election system to prevent political unrest, but there are no guarantees.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- The run-up to Thailand's first general election in eight years has already been full of drama and surprises -- and there is still a month to go.

Here are answers to five burning questions about the country's rocky return to democracy after five years of military rule.

How is the election expected to play out?

In January, the junta led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha pushed election day back to March 24, from the original plan of Feb. 24.

King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun on New Year's Day had announced that his coronation would be held on May 4-6, and asked that it be conducted in an orderly manner. The junta took this as a command to ensure the military would still be serving as a caretaker by then.

The delayed election day means the announcement of the final results -- to come no later than 60 days after the vote -- will not interfere with the coronation. Assuming the election goes ahead on March 24, the results should be announced by the latter half of May, with the first assembly to be held by early June.

Why did the nomination of Princess Ubolratana for prime minister cause such a stir?

The Thai Raksa Chart Party shocked the world when it nominated the king's sister, known as Princess Ubolratana, as its candidate for prime minister. The announcement came on Feb. 8, the final day for parties to register their contenders.

Thai Raksa Chart is a new party founded last year by family members and friends of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It is considered a close ally of the more established pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party, and the princess's nomination was initially seen as a total game changer. Many expected the divided public would rally around her, delivering Thaksin's camp a landslide victory.

The king, however, threw cold water on that idea the very same day. He declared the move unconstitutional because the monarchy is supposed to remain politically neutral.

Thai Raksa Chart is now at risk of being dissolved entirely. The Election Commission filed a motion asking the Constitutional Court to rule on the matter. If the court finds the nomination was unconstitutional, the party will be disbanded -- dealing a blow to other pro-Thaksin parties as well.

The first hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

Why would Thaksin's allies make such a risky gamble?

Under the new constitution, the prime minister will be elected by the political camp that has a combined majority of the 500 lower house seats and 250 upper house seats. But because 244 members of the upper house are nominated by the junta, and the other six spots are filled by the military and police chiefs, anti-junta forces must win at least 376 seats in the lower house alone.

The election system, implemented by the junta, is designed to prevent large existing parties such as Pheu Thai or the Democrat Party from winning big, since clashes between the two had kept the country mired in political unrest for two decades.

Thaksin supporters set up small parties like Thai Raksa Chart as a workaround. But the dissolution of that party would upend their strategy.

Who is favored to win?

A nationwide opinion poll by the Bangkok Post newspaper on Feb. 12-13 found that 66.2% of respondents were still undecided. Pheu Thai received the endorsement of 9.3%. Future Forward, a party led by 40-year-old billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, earned 7.5% support. The pro-junta Palang Pracharat garnered 7.0%, while the urban establishment's favored Democrat Party received 6.3% support.

Pro-Thaksin parties still have a strong presence in the north and northeast, as many farmers in the area long for the ousted prime minister's populist policies. The Democrats still have their southern support base. Younger voters are a wild card: About 6 million will be casting ballots for the first time, and it is hard to tell which side they will take.

Most political experts predict Pheu Thai will obtain the largest number of seats in the lower house, but they also say no single party is likely to win a majority. Third parties such as the Democrat Party or Future Forward may end up as kingmakers, with the option of forming a ruling coalition with either the pro-junta or Thaksin allies.

Thailand's new Future Forward party, led by businessman Thanathorn Juangrongruangkit, right, could end up having an influence if a coalition is needed after the vote.   © Reuters

Is there a risk of new political unrest or another coup?

No twist can be ruled out. For now, there are a few conceivable developments that could inflame political resentment, sending large numbers of activists into the streets.

If the pro-junta camp secures 126 seats in the lower house, but a different coalition obtains a majority in the chamber, the prime minister would have no power to implement policy. This deadlock, if it persists, could trigger protests.

Campaign regulations could be another source of friction. The "complicated regulations [could lead to] tens of disqualifications from the Election Commission after the poll," said Siliphan Nogsuan Sawasdee, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. Voters who cast ballots for the disqualified parties would not be happy.

The odds of this will increase if the Constitutional Court decides to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart after the election.

Fresh unrest would give the military a justification to intervene. "If politics does not create riots, nothing will happen," said Apirat Kongsompong, chief of the army.

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