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Thailand: Generals vs. populists at the polls

Thailand Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha
Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Thailand’s election season has featured generals, populists, royals — and a wildly uneven playing field.

The big picture: The ruling military junta, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, overthrew a democratically elected government in 2014. The generals will try their luck at the polls on Sunday, albeit after bringing in a new constitution that means they’re likely to win even if they lose.

  • The next prime minister will be selected by 500 elected members of Congress and 250 hand-picked senators. The junta therefore only needs one-quarter of the seats up for grabs to win outright and keep Prayuth in power.
  • The biggest threat comes from parties linked to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (it was his sister Yingluck whom the junta toppled in 2014). Pro-Thaksin parties are unlikely to win an outright majority though, meaning smaller parties could play a pivotal role.
  • “The election campaign and its aftermath — the formal result is not expected until early May — has reopened the deep divide between Bangkok’s royalist elite and the populist pro-Shinawatra camp that has haunted Thai politics for the past two decades, and periodically dealt business and society some nasty shocks,” the FT’s John Reed writes.

Why it matters: Turnout for the election is expected to be high. The junta hopes for a carefully managed process that gives it more legitimacy and the confidence of Western leaders and foreign investors. Thai politics are volatile though, and there could be a surprise in store.