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Turbulent Thailand

Thai local election, first since coup, watched for pro-democracy progress

Results expected Monday in vote anticipated to hinge on youth turnout

A woman has her temperature checked before voting at a polling station in Thailand's Prachuap Khiri Khan Province on Dec. 20.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand on Sunday held local elections for the first time since the 2014 coup -- the first nationwide poll to gauge the momentum of the pro-democracy protests.

In 76 provinces outside Bangkok voters chose the chief executive and members of the legislative arm known as provincial administrative organizations (PAOs). Results are expected to be known by Monday.

Local elections have been frozen since the coup led by then-Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, now the prime minister. Thailand held a general election in 2019, in which the opposition Future Forward Party, led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, surprised many by emerging as the third-largest party.

The party has since been dissolved by the Constitutional Court on charges that Thanathorn lent his own money to the party in violation of the law. The decision was seen as heavily influenced by the Prayuth government and is the root cause of the mass demonstrations that have continued in Bangkok since.

The PAOs form the local budgets and are responsible for public services such as roads, bridges, sewage systems and electricity. While provincial governors are appointed and sent by the Interior Ministry, the PAOs have significant political weight in each municipality.

PAO chief executives and members were traditionally local dignitaries supported by existing political parties. In this election, however, Future Forward's successor party, Move Forward, ran PAO chief executive candidates in 42 provinces and more than 1,000 PAO members in 52 provinces, aiming to challenge the strongholds of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party.

Move Forward hopes that younger voters between 18 and 20 years old, voting for the first time, will head to the polls and give it a boost. They are the core supporters of the mass protests in Bangkok and have strong reservations about the Prayuth government. Protest leaders have used social media to call on supporters to vote in the local elections.

But analysts say that Move Forward may only be able to win one or two chief executive positions. Young people who have come to Bangkok for work are seen as unlikely to return to their hometowns just to vote, since they are expected to go back home anyway for the long New Year's break coming up.

"Setting the PAO poll for Dec. 20 might have been part of the government's tactic all along," Weerasak Krueathep, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, told the Bangkok Post.

"The old faces are likely to return while the fresh-faced challengers will have a dim chance of victory," he said. "Their poll manifestos are not making an impact on voters."

The outbreak of COVID-19 may also have influenced the turnout. Nearly 700 people have been found positive at a seafood market in the central province of Samut Sakhon. The province has been locked down.

Thailand had widely been seen to have successfully contained the coronavirus pandemic, but new cases have been found in regions such as Chiang Mai in the north as well.

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