The scion of Thailand’s most famous political dynasty, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, is heading into general elections on Sunday vowing to wrest the south-east Asian country back from almost a decade of military rule.
“We’re going to help each other to take back our democracy, to take back our lives,” Paetongtarn, 36, told a Bangkok stadium decorated with her party’s signature red colour last month.
Paetongtarn is seeking a sweeping victory that would make it all but impossible for her to be denied victory under the country’s complex election rules. Over the past decade, south-east Asia’s second-biggest economy has been beset by military takeovers and violent crackdowns. Given the Thai military’s influence in neighbouring countries, the outcome of Sunday’s poll will also have ramifications across the region.
“This election in Thailand is deeply consequential,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, pointing to a “battle between autocracy and democracy” across the region.
Paetongtarn only joined politics in earnest last year, and her candidacy is seen by some as a precursor to an even greater political earthquake: the return of her father, the exiled billionaire media magnate and populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a coup d’état in 2006.
The Shinawatras are reviled by the country’s powerful military and royalist establishment but remain beloved by a section of the public, especially in the rural northern heartlands, for poverty alleviation policies such as a $1-per-visit universal healthcare programme.
Thaksin “changed the game”, said Thitinan. He “made the policy platform deliverable, and he delivered . . . the party became so powerful that it became a challenge to the established centres of power”. The incumbent, former junta head Prayuth Chan-ocha, seized power in 2014 by unseating Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister and another former prime minister, before refashioning himself as a civilian leader.
Human rights groups have criticised him for repressing dissent and crushing youth-led protests in 2020 that called for limits on Thailand’s monarchy. Human Rights Watch has accused him of a “blanket disregard for human rights”. He has also revived prosecutions under the lèse majesté law, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years for insulting the monarchy.
Despite international opprobrium, Prayuth won disputed polls in 2019 and is running again on the promise of continuity, though he is restricted to serving until 2025 under the military-backed constitution’s term limits. “Will you trust an old captain with considerable experience like me or a young pilot to fly this aircraft?” he recently asked supporters.
Prayuth’s record was further tarnished by the pandemic, which hit Thailand’s exports and tourism-dependent economy particularly hard. The resumption of international travel, particularly from China, is expected to improve the outlook, but a resilient baht has weakened exporters.
Government estimates put economic growth at just 2.7 to 3.7 per cent for 2023. The campaign has turned into a competition of populist pledges totalling tens of billions of dollars, from raising wages and pensions to subsidies and cash handouts.
Prayuth is trailing in opinion polls, but he will be helped by the fact that the military establishment has an effective veto on the prime minister. The 250 junta-appointed senators vote alongside the 500-member lower house, meaning the opposition needs to secure at least 376 seats.
The fate of the Shinawatras’ Pheu Thai party, which is targeting about 310 seats, could depend on the Move Forward party, which has surged on the back of support from young and urban voters, with its prime minister candidate recently outpolling Paetongtarn. But its progressive politics make it an awkward bedfellow for Pheu Thai — Move Forward has called for sweeping reforms, most notably to the lèse majesté law, and for ending conscription.
The Move Forward platform amounts to “a paradigm shift”, said Thitinan. “It’s not just about recognising the poor and addressing inequality, it’s about structural reforms to the traditional institutions that run Thailand.”
Pheu Thai has equivocated on overhauling the constitution or curtailing the monarchy, potentially leaving the door open to other coalition partners. The ruling Palang Pracharath party is backing Prayuth’s deputy, former army chief Prawit Wongsuwan, while Prayuth is running at the helm of the newly formed United Thai party.
“It’s impossible for Pheu Thai to form a one-party government,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, associate professor of political science at Thailand’s Mahidol University. She added that to secure the senate’s support, the party faced a choice of “the two generals, either Prayuth or Prawit”.
On Sunday, Paetongtarn ruled out co-operating with Palang Pracharath in a last-ditch effort to shore up her party’s support base. But an alliance between the Shinawatra camp and Move Forward could raise the risk of military or judicial intervention.
“There is a mounting likelihood of some kind of unrest because if these numbers turn out the way the polls suggest, Move Forward’s strong showing will be very difficult for the established centres of power to tolerate,” said Thitinan.
Meanwhile, Thaksin, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Dubai since 2008, has vowed to return despite facing numerous corruption-related convictions. He and Pheu Thai have denied that his daughter’s candidacy is designed to arrange a pardon. But the military-royalist camp’s bête noire has weighed in on the election from abroad.
Thaksin, 73, on May 1 reiterated his intention to return to Thailand but added a reason: to meet his seventh grandchild, whom Paetongtarn gave birth to last week. “See you soon,” he wrote on Twitter.