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Turbulent Thailand

5 things to know about Thailand's long-awaited election

Provisional Feb 24 voting day in doubt with coronation set in May

Thailand's general election is expected to be a three-horse race pitting pro-junta and pro-Thaksin parties against each other, with the Democrat Party potentially holding the balance of power.    © AP

BANGKOK -- Thailand's long-awaited general election has been thrown into renewed uncertainty, with the expected confirmation of polling day failing to materialize. The junta and the election authority had set Feb. 24 as a provisional date late last year. 

But on New Year's Day, the Bureau of the Royal Household confirmed that the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun would be held from May 4 to May 6. The junta government has raised concerns that the timing of the vote risks upsetting preparations for the ceremony, as the official results would be announced in late April.

Here are five things to know about the election.

Will the election be held on Feb. 24 as previously expected?

That is now uncertain. The election commission had set the provisional voting day for Feb. 24, but the royal decree officially calling the election was not published on Wednesday as expected. The commission was planning to finalize the date on Friday, but it appears to remain locked in discussions with the junta. 

In September, the king endorsed the last two bills required for a general election to take place, with the law coming into effect 90 days later, on Dec. 11. The constitution states that once the law takes effect, the junta must hold the vote within 150 days, which would be by early May.

Before the provisional date was set, there was speculation that the junta would use the coronation as an excuse to delay the election further.

Why is it so important?

This vote will test Thailand's ability to return to a stable democracy after nearly five years of military rule. The question is whether the kingdom can break the cycle of elections, followed by civil unrest and a coup. Since Thailand embraced a constitutional monarchy in 1932 it has had more than 20 coups, including several failed ones.

Although Thailand industrialized earlier than most other Southeast Asian nations, its economy has failed to reach its full potential, partly due to recurring political turmoil. The country's on-again, off-again democracy has kept the government from addressing important economic and social issues, such as underdeveloped infrastructure and economic inequality between urban and rural areas. The coups have also tarnished Thailand's reputation.

The country will host the first of two 2019 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits in June. Having a free and fair election and smoothly transferring power back to civilian authorities before June will give Thailand the opportunity to return to the international community's good graces.

Who are the main contenders?

There are three main political forces in Thailand: the Palang Pracharat Party, the Pheu Thai Party and the Democrat Party.

Palang Pracharat is pro-junta. Most of the junta's cabinet members who wish to pursue a political career will gravitate to it. Its chief is Uttama Savanayana, the junta's current minister of industry. Other ministers have also joined.

Palang Pracharat hopes to take advantage of the junta's populist goodies, such as a one-time cash giveaway of 500 baht and utility subsidies. At this point, however, the party cannot claim to be dominant.

Uttama Savanayana, Thailand’s industry minister and leader of the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party, speaks at the Future of Asia conference in Tokyo in June 2018. (Photo by Taro Yokosawa) 

Pheu Thai is home to supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister and successor, Yingluck, who was also removed in a coup. Pheu Thai is the direct descendant of the Thai Rak Thai Party, which was formed by Thaksin in 1998. Since then, pro-Thaksin groups in various guises have never lost a general election. Another party critical of the junta, Future Forward, is led by a tycoon-turned-politician and could align itself with Pheu Thai. 

Measures taken by the pro-Thaksin governments to support farmers have given the party a stronghold in the north and northeast of Thailand, where many of the country's poorest live. But its populist, steamroller approach has alienated the military and the urban middle class, and fueled the coups.

The Democrat Party is led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. It was formed in 1946 and is the country's oldest operating political party. The Democrats have been at the center of Thai politics for a long time but they have never defeated Thaksin's forces. The party has traditionally held liberal democratic values, but has veered toward a more authoritarian stance in recent years. A government led by Abhisit ordered the military to quell Thaksin-led protests in 2010, resulting in many civilian casualties.

How does the electoral system work in Thailand?

The provisional constitution calls for a 500-member lower house and half that number in the upper house.

The lower house combines single-seat constituencies with proportional representation. Three hundred fifty of the 500 lower house members are chosen through direct elections in single-seat constituencies. The junta's order in November to redraw electoral districts led to complaints of gerrymandering, but it is unclear whether the change will favor pro-junta forces.

The remaining lower house members are elected by proportional representation from party lists. But the provisional constitution is designed to hand more of these seats to smaller parties, giving parliament a wider range of voices. Thaksin supporters have responded by setting up smaller parties.

Assuming the election takes place on Feb. 24, upper house members will all be appointed by April 28, with the junta choosing 244 members and the remaining six filled by the military and police. Upper house members serve five-year terms, compared with four years for lower house members.

Who is likely to win, and what is likely to happen after the election?

The three-horse race is likely to end with no party holding a majority, even with votes from smaller affiliates.

The English-language daily The Nation predicted in November that Pheu Thai and its allies may secure 220 seats in the lower house, giving it the largest share but falling short of a majority. It forecast that Palang Pracharat will take 80 seats, while the Democrats are expected to win 100 seats. The rest are likely to be divided among smaller parties.

The official results of a vote on Feb. 24, if held on that day, would be announced by April 25. Before the first session of parliament, which must convene by May 9, the parties are expected to hold talks on forming a majority coalition in the lower house. Parties may try to persuade rivals to defect to their side.

After that, things may become tricky. To create a stable government, one party or a coalition needs to hold both a lower house majority and the prime ministership. But the provisional constitution requires that the prime minister win a majority of the combined membership of the upper and lower houses. That translates to at least 376 out of 750 seats.

Palang Pracharat could achieve this simply by managing to form a majority coalition of 251 members or more in the lower house, given that it has, in effect, complete control of the upper house. For anti-junta groups to form a stable government, they must control 376 members, all from the lower house -- a very tall order.

With 126 seats in the lower house, pro-junta groups may have enough votes to select the prime minister, with the help of the upper house. Under this scenario, an anti-junta coalition could control the lower house. If such a deadlock comes to pass, more political unrest may follow.

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