BANGKOK — Thailand’s military junta has finally allowed elections to take place — the first since it took power in a coup five years ago, promising to be a temporary, steady caretaker of the country amid bitter and violent divisions.
But it has no intention of returning to the barracks.
As polls opened Sunday, the election has shaped up to be anything but an earnest attempt to hand over the reigns to civilian, elected politicians.
By changing the rules of the game and using state laws to crack down on the competition, the junta leaders have stacked the cards in their favor — hoping to extend their grip on power with the blessing of the ballot box.
Rather than delivering democracy, the election is more likely to cement a role of the military within Thailand’s structures of political power, entrenching one of the last few military regimes left in the world, analysts say.
“They have done everything to give themselves an upper hand,” said Supalak Ganjanakhundee, editor of the Nation newspaper and a longtime observer of Thai politics. “It has all the advantages to continue a structure where they are at the center of power, with the monarchy.”
This reality has left pro-democracy forces — dominated by those aligned with the still-powerful ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra — scrambling across the country to pump up supporters, hoping they will turn out in the millions to deliver enough votes to thwart the military’s agenda.
“We will make history on March 24 by ending the power of the [military government],” said Sudarat Keyuraphan, leader of the main Thaksin-aligned party, Pheu Thai, before thousands of supporters Friday at a rally in Bangkok. “Give Pheu Thai a winning landslide.”
Parties like hers have dominated at the ballot box for almost two decades but have been repeatedly thwarted from exercising power because of corruption charges leveled at Thaksin — who now lives outside Thailand — and his family.
Ahead of the elections, the military-run government changed voting rules, making it more difficult for any party to clinch a decisive victory.
But the Thaksin forces were dealt a blow even before campaigns went into full gear.
In a bold and risky political move, one of the parties aligned with the former prime minister picked Thai Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya as its candidate for prime minister.
The unprecedented political play was swiftly shot down by the Thai king, the princess’s younger brother, who called the move “extremely inappropriate.” The party, Thai Raksa Chart, was later dissolved.
“I had every aspiration and dream to become the first minority to walk down to the Thai parliament. Sadly, that’s gone down the drain for now,” one of the group’s leaders and former editor of the Bangkok Post, Umesh Pandey, said recently in an interview in Washington. He was forced to step down from the helm of the paper last year, he says, because he was too critical of the military.
The loss could cripple the Thaksin camp from forming a government. In line with new rules, the junta has handpicked 250 unelected senators, forming a third of the total seats in the legislature.
That means parties aligned with the military will only have to win 126 of the 500 elected seats to push through their nominee for prime minister.
“[You need] 376 seats to put in a person of your choice for the prime minister’s office,” Pandey said. “That will be a herculean task.”
Over the weekend, Thaksin attended his daughter’s wedding in Hong Kong, a ritzy affair at a luxury hotel. Among the guests was Princess Ubolratana, who was pictured taking selfies with Thaksin.
In an usual statement broadcast across Thai television networks late Saturday, the Thai king encouraged his country to have “good people govern the country.” Others, he said, should not be allowed “to obtain power and cause turmoil.”
Pro-democracy forces will likely get a boost from the fresh-faced charismatic leader of a new political party, the Future Forward Party.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a billionaire who gave up his place in his family’s massive auto parts business to run the party, has amassed a dedicated young fan club since he came on the scene a year ago. He has vowed to fight for the end of military rule in Thailand and says he will be open to an alliance with any party with the same goals.
“What Thanathorn has done is stunning,” Pandey said. “He has rejuvenated the interests of the young — the 20- to 30-year-olds,” many of whom are first-time voters.
The man they are collectively up against is Prayuth Chan-ocha, junta leader and Thailand’s current prime minister. He is running as the prime ministerial candidate for the main military-aligned political party, Palang Pracharat, which has promised stability and continuity — a reference to the violence and bloody protests that have rocked Bangkok for decades.
“We have been created expressly to give the people a new choice,” said Kobsak Pootralkool, the party’s spokesman, in an interview. “We are telling them, ‘You can have a way out from this trap of eternal conflict, and that the existing parties are part of the conflict.’ ”
The message has appealed to some Thais, but analysts note that the party’s rallies are thin and lackluster compared with the feverish support of Pheu Thai or Thanathorn’s young followers.
Prayuth has made his own attempt to charm followers, softening his look by opting for polo shirts and slacks or tailored suits rather than military fatigues. He writes love songs and sings them at rallies, always with nationalistic undertones. Campaign videos show him sporting a relaxed look, with rolled-up sleeves, as soft rock music plays in the background.
In his final rally before supporters in Bangkok, he said he plans to “carry on” his duty.
“I was a soldier. Now, I am a citizen,” he said. Still, “I will die for this country.”
Taylor reported from Washington. Paritta Wangkiat in Bangkok contributed to this report.