Thailand’s political fate hangs in the balance as citizens head to the polls on May 14 for a general election. The two leading candidates are the daughter of a billionaire political dynasty, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, and the former head of the country’s military junta and incumbent prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha.
While the frontrunners represent different sides of the country’s political establishment, a third force has emerged as a challenger in the election. Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the youth-driven pro-democracy party, Move Forward, has become a charismatic voice for change nearly a decade after Thailand’s military staged a coup and installed Chan-o-cha at the helm, with the monarchy’s endorsement.
The Southeast Asian nation has a politically turbulent past. No less than 12 coups have occurred in Thailand since the constitutional monarchy was established in 1932. In that time, the country has cycled through 20 different constitutions.
With high political stakes and strong opposition jockeying for power, Thailand’s election is far from decided. Its result will have ramifications far beyond its borders, becoming a test for democratic viability in a region that has seen a slide towards autocracy during the covid pandemic. A win for the pro-democracy camp could improve Bangkok’s relations with the US, and potentially impact its close relations with Beijing.
“It’s do or die … it’s the old ways and powers versus change.” —A quote from Kanphong Prayoonsak, a Move Forward candidate, made to VOA
51.4 million: Approximate number of eligible voters in Thailand
500: Number of seats in the house of representatives up for vote, to hold office for the next four years
63: Number of prime minister candidates, nominated by 43 political parties
4: Favored candidates in the running to become Thailand’s next prime minister
Prayut Chan-o-cha: The 69-year-old incumbent prime minister and defense minister is a member of the United Thai Nation Party, a part of the country’s conservative political camp. The former general led a coup d’etat in 2014, seized power, and has remained leader since then.
Prawit Wongsuwan: The 77-year-old political veteran is the mentor of Chan-o-cha, a former army chief, and member of the Palang Prachara Party. Another conservative faction, the party has links to the military junta that staged the 2014 coup.
Paetongtarn Shinawatra: The 36-year-old opposition candidate represents pro-democracy group, Pheu Thai Party, and comes from a long line of political leaders. Two of Shinawatra’s family members were unseated in military takeovers in recent decades, including her father Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, and her aunt Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. Both are under self-imposed exile, though the former has signaled he intends to return to Thailand in July.
Pita Limjaroenrat: The 42-year-old politician and Harvard grad, is looking to chart a progressive path for Thailand. His party evolved from the now dissolved Future Forward Party, and is popular among young Thai voters. Limjaroenrat is seeking to remove the military from politics and advocates for reform of the monarchy, including the country’s controversial lese-majeste law, Article 112.