The last genuine election held in Thailand was in 2011 – you can read my preview of it here, and my report on the result here. The Pheu Thai party won a comfortable victory, with 48.4% of the vote and 265 of the 500 seats, and its leader, Yingluck Shinawatra, became prime minister.
A lot has happened since then. Yingluck tried to promote an amnesty for her exiled brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra; although she later dropped the idea, protests against her government continued and it was eventually overthrown by a military coup in May 2014.
As is usual with these things, the generals, having initially promised a speedy return to democracy, discovered that they were rather fond of power and wanted to hold on to it. One of their number, Prayut Chan-o-cha, was appointed prime minister and supervised the drafting of a constitution designed to perpetuate military rule.
Thai politics was also disrupted in 2016 by the death of the long-reigning King Bhumibol and the succession of his son, Vajiralongkorn – widely believed to be less supportive than his father of the military establishment, and more sympathetic to Thaksin and his sister.
So after many postponements, elections are finally being held on Sunday. The military has re-drawn electoral boundaries in its favor and reserved for itself all 250 seats in the Senate, but otherwise it appears that something like a genuine democratic exercise will take place.
And that means that Pheu Thai is again likely to be the winner, as it has been (under various names) on the last four occasions. It is fronted this time by Sudarat Keyuraphan, a former agriculture minister, but there is no doubt that Thaksin remains its most powerful figure.
Recent polling (never very reliable under military rule) puts Pheu Thai well ahead of its main rival, the Democrat Party – which despite its name supported the 2014 coup, but later fell out with the generals. Another anti-junta party, Future Forward, is jostling for third place with Prayut’s vehicle, Palang Pracharat.*
There seems no doubt that if the non-military parties stick together, they will have the numbers to insist upon their choice of prime minister. The risk is that the Democrats, whose enmity to Thaksin runs deep, will side with the military and be able to block a Pheu Thai government.
And as has become depressingly familiar, there is uncertainty about how the military will react if the new parliament is not to its liking. In 2011 it remained quiet and waited for Yingluck to make a mistake. It may again bide its time, or it may use its new powers – and particularly its control of the Senate – to hamstring the government.
A key variable will be the degree of support it can rely on from the king, although, Thailand being what it is, this is something that the Thai media cannot discuss openly. But Vajiralongkorn has already intervened once, to prevent his sister, Princess Ubolratana, from nominating as a candidate for a party allied to Pheu Thai.
The most interesting thing about Sunday’s election will probably not be the result, but what happens (or doesn’t happen) next.
Voting is first-past-the-post in 350 single-member constituencies, with the party vote totals then used to allocate another 150 seats on a proportional basis. On past performance, reasonably complete results should be available by breakfast time on Monday, Australian time.
* Note that there is no uniform standard for transliteration from Thai, so most of these names can be found in various different versions.
PS: There’s now a good preview available at the BBC, although it rates the military’s chances more highly than I do.