By SOMROUTAI SAPSOMBOON
Thailand is just a few steps away from a general election – an event that last took place in February 2014.
With the elections in sight, we can also expect some interesting political developments in the coming months.
For instance, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha should soon be disclosing which political party’s candidate he will become if he wants to return to power. Also, the two largest political parties – Democrat and Pheu Thai – will be electing new leaders and naming their PM candidates.
As a first step toward the polls, legislation on MP elections and the Senate structure were announced in the Royal Gazette yesterday. However, the law on MP elections will only come into effect 90 days later, or around mid-December.
As per the Constitution, a general election must take place within 150 days once the last of four laws required for the national poll come into effect. The laws in question are: the Political Parties Act, Election Commission Act, MP Election Act and Senators Acquisition Act.
The next step would be to relax political restrictions, so parties can begin preparing for the election.
After coming to power, the junta issued many orders restricting political activities, including a ban on political gatherings of five or more people, and an order prohibiting political parties from convening meetings or holding events that are political in nature. The easing of political restrictions are bound to bring some exciting developments.
First, General Prayut, who heads the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), is expected to share his future political plans later this month – he had promised to do so once the political restrictions were relaxed.
Now the question is whether the junta chief will choose to return as government head, and if so, will it be as a party candidate or an outsider.
If he contests as a party candidate, he will have a better chance of becoming prime minister if his party can gather enough support in the House of Representatives.
However, if he chooses to be an outside candidate, then it may get a bit risky because he will have to wait for the House of Representatives to fail in electing a prime minister.
Another exciting development will be the names the two main political parties will reveal as their prime minister candidate. Each party is required by law to nominate no more than three PM candidates ahead of the election.
The contest for the party leader’s post, meanwhile, has become very lively in the Democrat Party. The current party chief Abhisit Vejjajiva has made it clear that he wants to contest another term, and he has a good chance of succeeding.
However, some Democrats claim the NCPO is trying to send in their own man to fight for the Democrat leadership. Democrat Watchara Phetthong claimed that the junta wanted Abhisit to be replaced, because he has proved to be “an important obstacle” to Prayut’s return to power.
Abhisit said recently that the Democrat Party under his leadership would not support a prime minister who is not elected by the House of Representatives. This clearly means that Abhisit is against an outsider PM, who is not attached to any political party.
The third step that would bring the country closer to an election would be a royal decree on the election date, which should be issued some time between late December and early January.
Once that happens, we will get to hear who the PM candidates are and parties can start campaigning.
If by that time Prayut fails to decide which party he wants to become a PM candidate of, then it could only mean that he does not want to reveal his political ambitions before the election. If he opts for this choice, the only way he can return as government head is to hope that the House of Representatives fails to elect the next prime minister and the Senate steps in to join the vote.
All 250 senators will be appointed by the NCPO, though 50 of them will come from 200 candidates initially screened through voting among the applicants.
Competing parties will have about 70 days to campaign, but it cannot be done as freely as in previous polls.
Prayut has maintained that the political restrictions will only be “relaxed”, not completely lifted – his excuse is that the country has to be peaceful and free campaigning will only lead to disorder.
“We have to find ways to ensure peace in the country. There must be no chaos before we reach democracy,” he announced last week.
The last step is the election itself. In line with the junta’s road map and relevant laws, the Election Commission has come up with four dates for the election: the earliest being February 24 and the latest allowed by law being May 5. The others are March 31 and April 28.
Political temperatures can only be rising from now on.