6 June 2024

Thai voters are poised to come out in huge numbers on Sunday to make a momentous decision about the future of their country. The national vote looks set to be a decisive clash between liberal and conservative forces after years of simmering political conflict.

It has also been characterized as a battle between fear and hope. On the one hand, many people are dreading change, convinced it will bring dire consequences for the country. On the other, people are desperate for change, equally certain that it will lead to a better future for the nation.

Many feel that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government brought nine years of peace after a long period of political conflict and turmoil. They point to improvements in public infrastructure, success in overcoming COVID-19, and the return of foreign tourists. Millions of welfare card holders have benefited from monthly government aid. Many will now be anxious that political change could result in them losing these benefits.

However, a large section of the populace is deeply unhappy with the current administration and the way it is ruling the country. They want reform of the military and the monarchy as well as other national institutions. They say Thailand’s development has been hampered too long by an outdated and authoritarian leadership. These people are hoping for a new government that will bring the change they want.

Fear vs hope: Votes will decide

Olarn Thinbangtieo, a lecturer at Burapha University’s Faculty of Political Science and Law, says the outcome of Sunday’s vote will indicate what Thai society in general wants.

He too divides the electorate into two main groups: those who will vote out of fear of change and those who will vote in hope of change.

A win for conservative parties would signal that most Thais are still not ready for change, and are happy to stick with the country’s existing social, economic and political order, the lecturer said.

“But if liberal parties win, it would show most Thais are fed up with the country’s existing structures and believe it’s time for Thailand to catch up with the developed world.”

Thailand’s long and winding road

Battle between old and new

Sunday’s election is also a fight between two power camps – the old and the new.

The conservative camp is represented by PM Prayut’s United Thai Nation Party and the ruling party Palang Pracharath. The liberal camp is led by Pheu Thai and Move Forward, core opposition parties in the recently dissolved House of Representatives.

Move Forward and Pheu Thai have vowed big changes for Thailand if they manage to form the next government, although it remains unclear whether they would work together after the election.

Move Forward’s campaign motto is “Vote for Move Forward and Thailand will not be the same again.” Pheu Thai, meanwhile, pledges “immediate changes for Thailand” if it wins a landslide in the upcoming election.

United Thai Nation, however, has released a campaign video that paints a gloomy future for Thailand if certain changes are made. Retired civil servants are depicted as beggars due to big cuts in their pensions. Public property is shown defaced due to excessive freedoms. And borders are depicted as unprotected due to the abolition of conscription.

The video ends with a question: “Do you really want to see a Thailand that is no longer the same?”

Voice of the people

Campaigning by the rival camps in the final week before the election has focused on a simple choice for voters: continuity or change. Conservative parties have sought to inspire fear of change while liberals have held it up as Thailand’s only hope.

Olarn commented that politicians, parties and elites have laid out their visions of the country’s future. Now it is up to the general public to choose the path forward for Thailand on Sunday.

“We have yet to hear the voice of the people. The election results will tell us what they want,” he said.

Thais have already shown signs they are keen to exercise their democratic rights on May 14. Over 2.28 million people registered for advance voting last Sunday and as many as 91% of them turned out to cast their ballots.

The analyst expects another large turnout this Sunday, after a difficult period for Thailand.

“Voters have been under pressure for many years under this government. This will prompt them to come out in force to tell the powers-that-be what they want,” he said.

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Long way to go before new government

However, the country may still face a long delay post-election before a new government and PM can take up their posts. This process would involve a lot of negotiation and maneuvering with the law.

The Election Commission (EC) is expected to announce the unverified results at about 10pm on Sunday, but it will take several more days – if not weeks – before the agency published the official results.

Olarn expected a long process – and perhaps “some chaos” – before a coalition can gather the minimum number of MPs needed to form a government. Candidates and parties are almost certain to protest election results with lawsuits, and lodge petitions over the qualifications of certain winners. The EC will likely respond by disqualifying some winners and refusing to endorse some election wins. It will organize revotes in affected constituencies.

“It may take at least two months before a new government can be formed,” the analyst said, pointing to July as the likely date.

Possible deadlock over PM vote

By law, the official results in at least 95% of Thailand’s 400 constituencies must be announced no later than 60 days after election day. At least 95% of the 500 elected MPs (400 constituency and 100 party-list MPs) are required to convene the first session of the House of Representatives after a general election.

That minimum number is required before the House can convene a joint meeting with the Senate to vote on the next prime minister. A transitional clause in the 2017 Constitution permits the 250 senators to vote with MPs to select a prime minister until May 2024.

A PM candidate requires majority support from both Houses (376 votes) to be elected as Thailand’s next leader.

As such, a simple majority in the Lower House may be insufficient to guarantee the PM seat. Without support from senators, a new coalition government will find it difficult to secure the PM’s post for its candidate. Appointed by the previous junta administration, the Senate is expected to vote for a conservative candidate.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk