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Politics

Thai junta steals page from populist playbook ahead of election

Military government turns to cash handouts as nation returns to democracy

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- As Thailand gears up for its first general election since 2014 this coming February, the military junta is adopting the very pork-barrel politics it once derided in the opposition as it angles to ensure a win for a pro-military party.

The junta on Tuesday lifted a four-year-plus ban on political activity, allowing parties to start campaigning. The military had barred such activity, including gatherings of five or more people, since ousting then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a May 2014 coup, and ignored international criticism for detaining alleged violators.

But Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha warned parties and politicians against extreme measures. "There should not be chaos again," he said.

An election law requiring a general election within 150 days took effect Tuesday, with the vote set for Feb. 24. With campaigns now kicking off, the public faces a decision on whether to keep the military's influence in government after a return to democracy.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who like sister Yingluck was ousted in a military coup, still holds significant sway in poor, rural regions in the north and northeast. The pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party and its allies are expected to become the biggest bloc in the lower house thanks to support for his populist policies, like low-cost health care.

Meanwhile, the junta is backed by the military, bureaucrats and business interests. It set up the Phalang Pracharat Party with an eye toward the vote, putting four ministers in top posts and poaching dozens of politicians from more established parties.

The PPP aims to maintain the junta's policies and retain Prayuth as prime minister. It wants to keep the opposition in the minority and partner with midsize regional parties to create a pro-military government.

The junta began wooing voters even before lifting the ban on political activity. It has proposed at least 50 billion baht ($1.52 billion) in handouts, including a "New Year's gift" of 500 baht to the 14.5 million Thais, or one-fifth of the population, who make 100,000 baht or less a year, as well as 1,000 baht to seniors to help them get to hospitals.

The junta says the handouts are to lift the economy and are only coincidentally coming just before the election. But critics are not convinced.

"This package is nothing more than a populist policy," said former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party. The public knows the junta's true intentions, he said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, criticized for his authoritarianism, fell after his party got routed in a general election this past May. The Thai junta is taking steps to prevent a similar scenario here.

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