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What to Expect From Thailand’s Long-Awaited Election

Thailand's First General Election Since Coup

Photographer: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images 

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Thailand has endured many military coups since ending its absolute monarchy in 1932. The current stretch of army rule has been the longest since the early 1970s; junta leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha seized power in 2014 and repeatedly postponed elections. Now they are set to go ahead on Sunday. However, the first vote under a rewritten constitution doesn’t exactly presage a restoration of full democracy and civilian rule. The military will retain a decisive role in government, potentially leading to political gridlock and maybe even fresh unrest. A Thai princess’s brief entry and exit as a prime ministerial candidate only added to the intrigue.

It was the culmination of nearly a decade-long effort by Thailand’s urban establishment and royalist elite to curb the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications billionaire who was first elected in 2001 on a populist platform and ousted by a coup less than six years later. Although Thaksin hasn’t set foot in Thailand since 2008, he retains a loyal following particularly in the farming heartlands, where voters credit him with boosting crop prices and providing cheap health care. Detractors accuse him and his allies of vote-buying, fiscal recklessness and failing to do enough to tackle corruption. Thaksin’s sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, fled the country in 2017 rather than face jail in a criminal case related to a costly policy of buying rice from farmers at above-market rates. More recently, the junta reopened an old tax case against Thaksin and accused supporters of his “red-shirt” movement of plotting to kill Prayuth.