BANGKOK – Many Thais queued on Sunday, some for hours in scorching heat, to vote early in parliamentary elections scheduled for March 24, the country’s first since a 2014 military coup.
“It feels good to use our democratic right,” said 29-year-old Adulwit Sinthusiri, one of the 2.6 million Thais who registered for the one-day-only early voting.
People who registered to vote on Sunday but do not do so forfeit the chance to participate, under election rules.
Nearly 52 million Thais are eligible to vote in the March 24 polls, which will be the first under the new constitution that was drawn up by the military.
The contest broadly pits the party of junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup when he was army chief, against populist parties loyal to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and also parties opposed to extending military dominance in government.
Several other new and smaller parties could hold the key to a coalition government after the vote, but Prayuth’s party holds a built-in advantage because the junta is appointing the 250-seat Senate, giving it a head start in securing a majority vote of the combined parliament needed to choose a prime minister.
The election is for the 500-seat House of Representatives.
Adulwit said he was not impressed with the government’s performance over the past five years and believed new parties like Future Forward, an anti-junta group headed by 40-year-old auto parts billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, could make a difference.
Many supporters of Gen Prayut, who became prime minister after his coup and then retired from the army, to stay on, effectively setting up an elected martial democracy.
Pro-Thaksin parties have campaigned on policies that they said would improve the economy and increase prices of rice and rubber.
“I don’t think this election will take Thailand back to a liberal democracy because the constitution allows the military to continue to hold power,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at the University of Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand’s east.
Nevertheless, he said he thinks it is still important for Thais to vote. “It is a referendum on democracy and whether this country wants to move forward with democracy or not.”
To win power, a party must secure a majority in both the houses of parliament. In the lower house, 350 members will be directly elected, with the remaining 150 awarded according to each party’s popularity in the polls. The 250-seat upper house will be appointed entirely by the armed forces.
That means, while most parties will need to get 376 seats to secure power, the pro-military party Phalang Pracharat might only need to secure only 126.
Thailand has struggled to overcome deep-rooted political divisions since 2001, when telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra rode to power promising to help the country’s rural poor.
Parties affiliated with Thaksin, who is in self-imposed exile after conviction on a corruption charge, have won all elections since 2001 on populist policies like a universal healthcare scheme.
The military overthrew pro-Thaksin governments with coups in 2006 and again in 2014, when it toppled one that had been led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
Nearly 80 parties and more than 2,700 candidates will be competing for votes in the polls. Some seven million people will be voting for the first time.
Many voters are concerned about the economy – Southeast Asia’s second-biggest, but sluggish under military rule – and startling levels of wealth inequality.
The big names include the pro-military Palang Pracharat and the anti-military Pheu Thai and Future Forward, a new party led by car parts tycoon Thanthorn Juangroongruangkit. But there are also other, mostly smaller, parties that have positioned themselves more neutrally.
Pheu Thai remains popular in the rural heartlands in the country’s northeast that make up its power base, while the more establishment orientated parties continue to have the backing of the elite and middle class in Bangkok.
Candidates and politicians continue to contend with laws, including lese majeste and the Computer Crimes Act, which can make it risky to speak out or even campaign. At the end of February, a Cyber Security Act was added to the authorities’ arsenal, allowing access to computer data and networks.
As campaigning enters its final week, some 52 legislators from around the region have urged the military government to lift restrictions on freedom of speech and expression.
Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian parliament and chair of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights has said that “If the election is to have any legitimacy or credibility, the junta must immediately remove all remaining restrictions on freedom of expression and ensure the release of all those imprisoned solely for their peaceful political views.”