Thailand elections: Millions vote in crucial poll that could unseat military generals

People arrive at a polling station to cast their ballots for the Thailand General Election (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
People arrive at a polling station to cast their ballots for the Thailand General Election (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Thousands of people cast their ballots in Thailand on Sunday in a crucial election that is expected to deliver big gains for the opposition forces with the daughter of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra being the frontrunner.

The general election is touted as a pivotal chance for change, eight years after incumbent prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha came to power in a 2014 coup.

About 52 million eligible voters are choosing among progressive opposition parties and others allied with royalist generals keen to preserve the status quo.

Voting began at 8am (local time) at 95,000 polling stations across the country.

Wongsak Na Chiengmai was the first person to vote at his polling station in central Bangkok. "I'm already 88. It's not easy," he told Reuters. "This is very important for the country."

The election is primarily between the Pheu Thai Party's driving force, the billionaire Shinawatra family, against a nexus of old money, military and conservatives with influence over key institutions that have toppled three of the populist movement's four governments.

The opposition Pheu Thai Party, headed by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, is widely predicted to win at least a healthy plurality of the seats in the 500-member lower House. After casting her ballot, Ms Paetongtarn said every vote is important for effecting change in Thailand and that she has high hopes for the final result.

The 36-year-old daughter of the ousted leader is banking on her father's wide patronage network while sticking to the party's populist approach that has been extremely successful in the past.

"May 14 will be a historic day. We will change from a dictatorship to a democratically elected government," Ms Paetongtarn told cheering crowds on Friday at the final rally.

"Every time we come to power we are able to bring prosperity to the people. I've entered politics to help the new generation, to support their families."

Pheu Thai Party’s prime ministerial candidate Paetongtarn Shinawatra (EPA)
Pheu Thai Party’s prime ministerial candidate Paetongtarn Shinawatra (EPA)

According to the opinion polls, the Move Forward party, led by 42-year-old Harvard alumnus Pita Limjaroenrat is also likely to gain seats. The party is banking on young voters, including 3.3 million eligible first-time voters.

However, there is no guarantee either of the parties will govern because of parliamentary rules written by the military after the coup and skewed in its favour.

The prime minister will be selected in July in a joint session of the House and the 250-seat Senate. The winner must secure at least 376 votes and no party is likely to do that on its own.

Pheu Thai won the most seats in the last election in 2019, but the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party, succeeded in bringing together a coalition with Mr Prayuth as prime minister. It relied on unanimous support from the Senate, whose members share the military's conservative outlook and were appointed by the military government after the coup.

The incumbent prime minister is running for reelection, although the military this year has split its support between two parties.

Mr Prayuth is backed by the United Thai Nation Party; his deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, another former general, is the standard bearer for Palang Pracharath.

The prime minister has been blamed for the collapsing economy, shortcomings in addressing the pandemic and thwarting democratic reforms. He campaigned extensively across the country, hoping to woo the conservative middle-class voters.

"We do not want change that will overturn the country. Can you accept that? Do you know what kind of damage it would do?" he asked supporters on Friday.

Ben Kiatkwankul, partner at government affairs advisory Maverick Consulting Group, said the election is a test of the "conservative roots and the future of progressiveness". "The issue is bigger than whether people like or dislike Thaksin or Prayuth. Now it's the old system facing off against the liberalist wave."