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Thai junta accused of buying votes from Thaksin supporters

With the elections looming, government seen scrambling to dismantle opposition blocs

BANGKOK -- The Thai junta's measures to win over supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and to ensure that it emerges the victor in next year's elections is spurring allegations of vote-buying and intervening with the Election Commission.

The government recently announced that it will dish out around 63 billion baht ($1.9 billion) to low-income earners and the elderly from December, in a move seen to attract the supporters of Pheu Thai Party and its allies -- groups that support Shinawatra.

The package is aimed at the 14.5 million holders of the welfare card, a program introduced by the junta last November to support individuals that make less than 100,000 baht per year. The package is seen by critics of the government as attempts to win votes for the election that it has hinted at holding in February.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha denied those allegations. "I don't want the media to say that this government just gives money for political purposes. Everything has been done according to the laws. It is just a coincidence that it has been finalized now," he said.

His words failed to convince some. "Four years with the junta did not make people happier," said Supavud Saicheua, an adviser at Kiatnakin Phatra Financial Group. "The government has these policies toward poor people because they might want to get more popular."

Prayuth himself has yet to reveal what his plans are after the election but some of his cabinet members have already joined the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party.

In the package are electricity bill waivers of no more than 230 baht a month per household from next month till September 2019; a one-time handout of 500 baht per person in December; 400 baht each for those aged 60 and above from December to next September. 

These populist policies have proven to work in the past and are, in fact, a trademark of the Thaksin-affiliated parties, especially Pheu Thai. For example, between 2011 and 2013 when his sister Yingluck was in power, her government bought rice from Thai farmers at 15,000 baht per ton, roughly double the global market price at the time.

Ousted former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra bought rice from farmers at double the market price.    © Reuters

The policy resulted in a five-year jail term for Yingluck in 2017, although she, like her brother, absconded overseas. But the family and Pheu Thai remain popular among farmers and low-income earners.

About 11% of Thai population lived below the nationally defined poverty line in 2016, although that figure had improved from 21% in 2000. The average salary is about 45,000 baht per month in the Bangkok area, but just around 25,000 baht in the north, northeast, and the deep south of the country, where Thaksin parties are especially dominant. 

The junta is also allegedly trying to influence the Election Commission into putting pressure on the anti-junta parties. In October, the junta encouraged the commission to investigate if Thaksin still had control over Pheu Thai Party. Thai laws prohibit foreign residents from leading domestic political parties and the penalty is party dissolution. 

The investigation is ongoing but Thaksin's his nephew, niece, and other family members formed a new party earlier this month named Thai Raksa Chart Party, which could take over Pheu Thai's role should it be dissolved.

Pro-democracy activists wear masks mocking Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as Pinocchio during a protest against junta at a university in Bangkok on Feb. 24.    © Reuters

On top of that, allegations of gerrymandering are also emerging. On Nov. 16, the prime minister gave an order that allowed the Election Commission to redraw constituency boundaries. The agency originally said it would come up with a map of constituents by mid-November, but has now delayed it to the end of the month.

The commission said it would not bow to requests in the redrawing of the constituencies, despite concerns raised by an independent poll watchdog and anti-junta parties.

"It's likely that pro-junta parties could gain an advantage from the order and that could lead to denial of the poll result by voters," said the Open Forum for Democracy Foundation, a non governmental organization that monitors the electoral process.

"I believe more orders will be issued to pave the way for the junta to retain power," said a senior member of Pheu Thai, according local media The Nation. 

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, agreed. He said: "The pro-junta parties are in rush, because they haven't secured enough support for the coming election." 

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