Thailand dissolves Parliament ahead of May elections

·3 min read

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's Parliament was dissolved Monday by a government decree, setting the stage for a May general election that poses an opportunity to lessen the military’s influence in politics.

The dissolution, just a few days before the end of the four-year term of the House of Representatives, was initiated by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is seeking a fresh mandate in the election expected to be held May 7 or 14. The date will be announced next week.

The election will pit the popular opposition Pheu Thai party, backed by billionaire populist Thaksin Shinawatra, against parties representing the conservative establishment and closely linked to the military.

Parties led and backed by Thaksin have won the most seats in every election since 2001, but have been blocked by military coups, unfavorable rulings by the conservative judiciary and election laws drafted to favor army-backed parties.

The leading Pheu Thai candidate is Thaksin’s daughter, 36-year-old Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who is heavily favored in opinion polls.

If elected, she would be the fourth member of the Shinawatra family to serve as prime minister in the past two decades. Her father held office in 2001-2006, and Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011-2014. Both of them were toppled by coups. Thaksin's brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat served in the office briefly in 2008 before he was removed by a court ruling disbanding the People's Power Party, which was the name of Thaksin's political movement at the time.

More than 52 million of the country’s population of over 66 million are eligible to vote across 400 constituencies. Four hundred seats will be determined by first-past-the-post races in each constituency. A separate party preference ballot will seat the other 100 members of the House of Representatives from national party lists. The prime minister is selected by a vote in a combined session of the newly elected lower house and the 250-seat Senate, a conservative body whose members are appointed.

Prayuth, who turns 69 on Tuesday, first assumed the top job after staging a military coup as army commander, ousting Yingluck’s elected government in 2014. He did not run in the 2019 election but was selected prime minister by Parliament after the army-backed Palang Pracharath party formed a coalition government.

This year, however, he faces a challenge from his longtime comrade-in-arms and deputy prime minister, 77-year-old Prawit Wongsuwan, who has been named the new Palang Pracharath candidate for prime minister.

Prayuth joined the recently formed United Thai Nation party in January to become its candidate, even though a court ruled last year that he can serve only two more years in office under the constitution. The party is less experienced, raising the question of whether it can win the minimum 25 seats in the lower house to nominate Prayuth as prime minister.

Both Prayuth and Prawit have polled poorly.

Prawit had indicated he would be amenable to forming a coalition government with Pheu Thai, a position that was virtually unthinkable for a military-linked candidate just a few years ago.

The stronger runners-up in the 2019 polls also have an important roll to play as possible partners in any coalition government. Chief among them is the well-funded Bhumjaithai party, whose base is in the populous northeast region, which holds the greatest number of lower house seats.

Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul, a construction magnate before entering politics, is the deputy prime minister and health minister in Prayuth’s government, giving him a high profile during the coronavirus pandemic.

He and his party are best known for campaigning for and implementing the de facto legalization of marijuana and other cannabis products, a policy that benefits the primarily agricultural northeast.

Grant Peck, The Associated Press