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Turbulent Thailand

Pro-Thaksin allies seen retaining firm support in Thai election

Hope for democracy builds among more than 10,000 parliamentary candidates

A man walks past an electoral poster in Bangkok: The number of parliamentary hopefuls expected to nearly quadruple compared with the election in 2011.    © AP

BANGKOK -- A week after a party supporting Thaksin Shinawatra nominated Princess Ubolratana and shook up Thai politics, all eyes are turned to supporters of the deposed prime minister as the Election Commission prepares to announce the official list of candidates on Friday.

With thousands of candidates representing a plethora of parties, the junta's electoral strategy appears to be one of divide and conquer. But despite the reversals of the past week, the opposition remains in a strong position for the March 24 general election.

On Feb. 8, one important pro-Thaksin group, the Thai Raksa Chart Party, gambled that nominating Princess Ubolratana as a candidate for prime minister would help it sweep to victory. The constitution requires all parties to field one to three candidates for the premiership.

But what seemed like a carefully calculated move to attract royalists to the party turned out to be blunder. King Vajiralongkorn said the Thai Raksa Chart's nomination of the princess was "most inappropriate" and against the constitution, which requires the monarchy "to be above politics and politically neutral."

"Chin up and keep moving forward! We learn from past experiences but live for today and the future." Thaksin tweeted after the Thai Raksa Chart Party decided to drop the nomination of Princess Ubolratana.

Some saw this as not just a message of encouragement but as a coded message for the party's backers to seek a coalition with Future Forward, a new anti-junta political group led by businessman Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. 

Princess Ubolrata accepted the Thai Raksa Chart party's nomination to run as its prime ministerial candidate. She later withdrew and apologized after her brother, King Vajiralongkorn, declared the move unconstitutional.    © AP

The misstep by Thaksin's allies put their entire election strategy in jeopardy, as the Thai Raksa Chart now faces disbandment as recommended by the Election Commission to the Constitutional Court.

But other pro-Thaksin parties remain, and they maintain strong support from voters in Thailand's northeast, where many poor farmers live.

According to a Feb. 9-10 opinion poll by Khon Kaen University, the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party had the support of 44.8% of respondents, far ahead of the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party, at 7.4%. The results of the survey, which was conducted after the King's edict barring Princess Ubolratana from running, have buoyed the hopes of Thaksin supporters.

And the Election Commission's decision to petition for Thai Raksa Chart's dissolution could benefit other parties allied to Thaksin, particularly Pheu Thai. "The more pressure put on the Thai Raksa Chart Party, the more strongly it will backfire on the pro-regime party," said Boonyakiat Karawekphan, a lecturer in politics at Ramkamhaeng University.

He said the quick response from the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court, which appear eager to clamp down on Thai Raksa Chart, could become a rallying point for Thaksin allies, who will argue that the party is being unfairly prosecuted by the junta. That could fire up Thaksin supporters, particularly in Thaksin's political stronghold in northeastern Thailand.

As for Thai Raksa Chart, its fate now hinges on a decision by the Constitutional Court. On Thursday, the court unanimously accepted a motion filed by the Election Commission that the party be dissolved in response to the King's edict. It has given the party seven days to submit its defense. The court will convene on Feb. 27 to begin considering the case.

Thai Raksa Chart has registered about 300 candidates for the lower house election. If the party is dissolved, those candidates will not be allowed to run. The constitution requires parliamentary candidates to declare their party affiliation 90 days before the poll, leaving them no time to switch to other parties.

A supporter of former Thai Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra in 2016.    © Reuters

Thai Raksa Chart leader Preechapol Pongpanich said the party's constituency candidates will continue to campaign. However, its chief election strategist, Chaturon Chaisang, said party executives and strategists will avoid making speeches and attending rallies.

"The issue is sensitive," said Chaturon. "We should focus on preparing our defense in court," he added.

A total of around 14,000 constituency and party-list candidates are expected to run, a nearly fourfold rise from the 3,779 candidates who contested the previous election in 2011. Political observers say the large number of candidates reflects Thais' eagerness to restore democracy.

The junta led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has ruled the country for nearly five years. When it seized power in a 2014 coup, it pledged to promptly step aside in favor of a civilian government once law and order was restored. But the authorities have since postponed elections several times.

Other factors besides Thais' democratic aspirations may explain the explosion of parliamentary candidates. The electoral system pushed through by the junta is designed to help smaller parties gain seats based on votes from party lists. This will work against larger anti-junta parties like Pheu Thai, which is made up of Thaksin supporters.

Those supporters responded to the new rules by setting up new parties and fielding many candidates. They hope to build a strong anti-junta coalition in the lower house even if Pheu Thai loses seats.

Thaksin continues to live in self-imposed exile to avoid criminal convictions. But even from thousands of miles away he continues to wield influence, putting the anti-junta parties in a strong position to take on their opponents in parliament once the votes are counted.

Nikkei staff writer Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat contributed to this article.

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