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Thailand election: What you need to know

May 13, 2023

The May 14 vote will see the military-backed parties led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha take on a strong opposition, in the first general election since the massive 2020 student-led pro-democracy protests.

People line up for their early vote for Thailand's upcoming general election at a polling station in Bangkok
Young Thais make up a large portion of the country's more than 52 million eligible votersImage: Athit Perawongmetha/REUTERS

Thailand's general election on Sunday is seen as a crucial contest between the military-backed ruling coalition and pro-democracy parties that are challenging the status quo.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former military general who has been in power since engineering a coup in 2014, is heading the conservative camp and running for reelection with the newly formed United Thai Nation Party.

After nine years at the helm, his popularity has dwindled, with recent opinion polls showing that many Thais want him out.

"This election is important because it could mark the first transition of power in Thailand in nearly a decade," Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Bangkok, told DW.

"Should General Prayuth fail in his reelection bid, it could lead to the search for an alternative leader who could serve as a buffer between the conservative status quo forces and the democratic sections of the country," he added.

Race to become prime minister

Prayuth is up against political newcomer Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the leader of Thailand's biggest opposition party, Pheu Thai.

A populist politician, Paetongtarn has a strong support base. Her father, Thaksin Shinawatra, and aunt, Yingluck, are both former prime ministers.

Political parties affiliated with Thaksin have performed well in every election since 2001. Pheu Thai is hoping for a landslide victory in the polls so that it doesn't need the support of the Senate, whose 250 members are hand-picked by the military, to form the next government.

Prayuth is also facing a challenge from Move Forward. The pro-reform party is gaining momentum and its leader, businessman Pita Limjaroenrat, has emerged as one of the leading contestants to become prime minister, according to the latest poll by the National Institute of Development Administration.

Pita's surge in popularity has seen him overtake former front-runner Paetongtarn, while Prayuth is a distant third.

Will election be free and fair?

Although the opposition parties are riding high in surveys, Thailand's 2017 constitution is designed to favor military-affiliated parties.

A political party, or coalition, needs to win a majority of 376 votes from both the 500-seat lower house and the 250 military-appointed senators.

"A massive opposition win could lead to a return to real democracy, and it might dent the military-royal family nexus that has dominated the country for a decade. It could mean a return to popular representation in Thailand, which, in turn, could lead to a rollback of laws that have solidified the military's grip on the country," Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations based in Washington, told DW.

"The military and its favored parties could also use their control of the system to undermine real democratic change. That could lead to violence, unrest and further polarization, or, in a worst-case scenario, a coup," Kurlantzick warned.

Pro-democracy activist Patsaravalee Tanakitvibulpon said Thais are ready to take to the streets if the regime manipulates the upcoming vote. The 27-year-old is part of a project that has mobilized at least 100,000 volunteers to monitor the vote count nationwide after the election commission decided to scrap real-time updates.

Young voters push for change

"Young voters have grown up in an era of political polarization marked by protests, coups and crackdowns," said Napon of ISEAS.

"They view this election as an opportunity to push for change and make their voices heard, channeling their frustration with the established way of doing things in Thailand, and seeking a political system that is more inclusive and responsive to their needs."

Young Thais make up a large portion of the country's more than 52 million eligible voters. Many of them actively participated in the 2020 demonstrations, rallying for changes to the lese-majeste law that carries punishments of up to 15 years in prison for defaming or insulting the monarchy.

"Young Thais see the political power structures dominated by conservatives as blocking progress in the country," Puangthong Pawakapan, an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told DW, adding that they "want an all-round change."

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Emmy Sasipornkarn Srimingkwanchai
Emmy Sasipornkarn Multimedia journalist covering Thailand and Southeast Asia