By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Nation weekend
Sunday's election has been cast as a battle between authoritarian and democratic forces to determine whether members of the military junta will be able to legitimately cling to power through the ballot.
Among key factors standing in the generals’ way is the younger generation. Some seven million first-time voters have indicated they oppose the establishment elite and military-dominated politics and want a fresh start for the future.
Veteran politician Suthep Thaugsuban of the pro-junta Action Coalition for Thailand (ACT) knows this. The man who led the massive street protests that paved the way for military intervention in 2014 has asked his limited support base to persuade their kids to vote for him.
“Give them a wai, tell them this is the only thing you’ll ever ask them to do for you – ‘Please go vote for Loong Kamnan’,” Suthep begged on Monday while campaigning in Bangkok.
For an adult to wai a youngster suggests a desperate appeal for a favour or kindness. Suthep was referring to himself by his nickname, Loong Kamnan. He was once a tambon chief in the South. And he would love to have a share of the youth support enjoyed by youthful billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party.
Thanathorn, a newcomer to politics apart from his student activism long ago, has based his campaigning on championing democracy, rights and a more open society, as well as improving the economy.
Opinion polls and observers give Future Forward little chance of winning the election, but junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, eager to hang on to the Prime Minister’s Office, realises that voters are drawn to what’s new. He’s modified his look and gestures and has tried to appear less gruff and rigid.
The pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party, which nominated Prayut as its PM candidate, mimics Suthep’s tactic for attracting the youth vote, espousing the belief that “parents know best” and children should honour their parents’ wishes.
Prayut actually said last week he regards himself as the father of all Thais – a figurehead role most commonly associated with His Majesty the late King Bhumibol.
Phalang Pracharat, which takes its name from the junta-led government’s popular Pracharat series of public welfare schemes, is anxious to continue what observers refer to as the “Prayut regime”, which began with the 2014 coup.
The party has enjoyed electoral privilege, with the Election Commission and Ombudsman accepting Prayut’s candidacy on the grounds that despite being prime minister he is not a “state official”. Yet surveys suggest Phalang Pracharat cannot win a majority of House seats on Sunday.
To continue in government, Prayut and the party will need allies, because not even the 250 senators to be appointed by the junta will be enough to maintain the status quo. Potential allies abound, though, ready to vote for Prayut’s return to high office in exchange for Cabinet portfolios and other influential posts.
Surveys and analysts tend to view Pheu Thai as the frontrunner in the polling, despite the dissolution of its major ally, the Thai Raksa Chart Party, over its daring nomination of Princess Ubolratana as a PM candidate.
The Democrats, Thailand’s oldest party, have a significant chance to do well in the election, although their former secretary general, Suthep, will be funnelling off support for the ACT.
Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva’s stated refusal to support Prayut’s continuance in office reflected his confidence of victory in the polls, but his party has a slim chance of beating Pheu Thai.
Debate over specific policy proposals has largely faded from Thai electioneering since 2006. All of the parties have announced policies this time, but the public’s attention has mainly focused on personalities and the question of who might support whom as premier.
That is to date the key question for voters old and young – whether the triumphant party on Sunday will then enable General Prayut to continue his rule.