Asia Pacific / Politics

Both military-backed party and Thaksin allies claim victory in Thai election

Bloomberg, Reuters

A political party linked to exiled tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra claimed victory in Thailand’s election and said it would seek to form a government, challenging a military-backed group that led in initial vote counts and has also said it won.

Pheu Thai won the most seats in the election and the military-appointed Senate should follow the wishes of voters, Sudarat Keyuraphan, the party’s candidate for prime minister, told reporters in Bangkok on Monday. While local news outlets showed the party winning the most seats, election authorities still haven’t released official tallies.

“We’ll try to form a government coalition right away because that’s how people voted,” Sudarat said. “We stood by our position that we won’t support the continuation of the military regime.”

The comments indicate a showdown is emerging to form a government between pro-democracy forces and Thailand’s royalist and military elites, who have repeatedly sought to prevent Thaksin and his allies from taking power over the past two decades. Previous confrontations have led to instability, gridlock, deadly street protests and coups.

Thailand’s pro-army Palang Pracharat party, meanwhile, said on Monday it aims to form a government after winning the most votes in the country’s first election since a 2014 coup.

Party spokesman Kobsak Pootrakool told reporters the party expects to gather 251 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives to form a government.

“Palang Pracharat will talk to like-minded parties who share the same ideology and standpoint to move the country forward, which will take a while,” Kobsak said.

It was not clear how many seats Palang Pracharat would have in the House of Representatives, as the Election Commission said it would only release the winners of 350 seats on Monday.

The party won 7.7 million votes with 94 percent counted, according to unofficial results posted on the Election Commission’s Facebook page. Pheu Thai came in second with 7.23 million votes. The Election Commission had said on Monday it would announce the winners of the 350 constituencies at 4 p.m., after several delays in giving seat totals.

Investors appeared sanguine about the results of the election. The baht strengthened as much as 0.8 percent against the dollar, while the benchmark stock index’s drop was less than the slide in regional peers amid a global selloff.

The results put junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha in position to stay in power, as Thailand’s election rules effectively tilt the playing field in favor of the military. The 250-member Senate appointed by the junta also gets a vote for prime minister, and it’s likely to back Prayuth.

Either way, any coalition is likely to be weak and unwieldy, making it difficult to pass legislation in the lower house. Both Pheu Thai and Prayuth would need to rely on a range of smaller regional parties to push through key policies.

Questions are also being raised about the credibility of the vote and the next administration is likely to be unstable, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the head of Future Forward, said in a television interview on Monday. The 40-year-old scion of a billionaire family, whose party did surprisingly well, has vowed to rewrite the military-drafted constitution.

“There might be another election, there might be another military intervention,” Thanathorn said. “Everything is still on the table.”

A win for the junta-backed party would amount to a breakthrough for Thailand’s royalist and military elites, who have repeatedly sought to prevent Thaksin and his allies from taking power over the past two decades.

While a Prayuth-led government would continue the junta’s economic policies, including a 1.7 trillion baht ($54 billion) infrastructure program, it also faces questions of legitimacy. Turnout for the election was 66 percent, compared with 75 percent in 2011, according to the Election Commission.

“This will leave the pro-military government with a large, strong opposition that’s led by Pheu Thai and Future Forward — both staunch critics of the junta,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor in politics at Mahidol University. “It’ll be difficult for them to pass legislation, and Prayuth might not be able to handle that pressure.”

Questions of stability will hang over whichever ruling coalition emerges. Unsettled foreign investors have already pulled out more than $700 million net from Thai stocks and bonds this year amid growth concerns in the export and tourism-reliant economy, the second-largest in Southeast Asia.

To win more votes, the military’s party emulated Thaksin’s populist formula. It proposed lowering taxes, boosting the minimum wage by more than 30 percent, and guaranteeing prices for rubber, rice and sugar cane. Prayuth had already offered farmers funds for harvesting and provided low-income earners about $10 per month to purchase household staples.

Thaksin’s opponents — a loose faction of soldiers, bureaucrats and wealthy Bangkok families with royal connections — have sought to keep him away from Thailand, in part because they view him as a threat to the monarchy. The army ousted Thaksin in 2006, and eight years later Prayuth deposed a government run by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

The next prime minister needs 367 votes in the bicameral National Assembly, which consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Election Commission has until May 9 to submit official results, after which lawmakers will pick a prime minister.

Sunday’s election followed one of the longest periods of military rule in Thailand, which has a history of elections followed by coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Bloody street clashes between Thaksin’s supporters and critics have killed dozens over the past decade, deterring tourists and stifling economic growth during the worst of the unrest.

Thaksin hasn’t set foot in Thailand since 2008, when he fled a corruption conviction in the wake of a coup two years earlier. He has denied wrongdoing and says the accusations are political.

More recently Thaksin has sought to show he’s close to the monarchy. A party linked to him nominated Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya as its prime ministerial candidate, only for King Maha Vajiralongkorn to reject the move. A court later disbanded the party, hurting his election strategy.

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