Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has dissolved Parliament weeks ahead of a contentious national election. File Pool Photo by Liu Ying/UPI | License Photo
March 20 (UPI) -- Thailand disbanded its parliament kicking off a contentious election that will force the country to choose between its current military ruling class and the youngest daughter of the former prime minister who was ousted in a coup nearly two decades ago.
On Monday, King Maha Vajiralongkorn accepted a decree from Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to dissolve the country's House of Representatives, setting up the official campaign season in preparation for the vote, which had been conditionally scheduled for May 7.
The political shakeup was expected to allow additional time for the 500 House legislators to switch political affiliations before the highly anticipated ballot.
Thailand's constitution calls for general elections to take place no more than 60 days following the end of a parliamentary session, but by law the timeline has been shortened to just 30 days due to the dissolution.
The 68-year-old Prayuth -- who has led the country since 2014 -- is seeking re-election under the newly formed United Thai Nation Party, but he also faces term limits that will force him out of office after he serves another two years.
"From now on, I will go on to the election campaign," Prayuth said Monday during a briefing outside the Government House. "I want to thank everyone for their cooperation that we were able to deliver during our government."
Polls show Prayuth trailing his opponent, Paetongtarn Shinawatra -- the 36-year-old chairwoman of the Pheu Thai party -- who appeared to be the clear favorite to win the nomination. Her candidacy for prime minister faced an uphill battle in the Senate -- a 250-member body of military appointees that was likely to oppose her.
Still, polls show Shinawatra has the best chance of forming a coalition with other parties to get her nomination through.
"Pheu Thai is the only party that currently stands a credible chance of forming a majority in the House, but it happens to be the least likely to secure the support of the Senate," said Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
Shinawatra could join forces with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, the 77-year-old former army chief and one-time confidant of Prayuth, who was running for the ruling Palang Pracharath Party.
Shinawatra also wields a major popularity advantage as she hails from a prominent and wealthy political family.
Her father, billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, served as the country's prime minister from 2001 until 2006, although he was overthrown in a military coup and has since lived in exile.
Despite some major political failures for the family through the years, parties affiliated with the Shinawatras have still dominated every election since 2001.
While the elder Shinawatra often found himself at odds with the nation's military, his policies have remained popular across vast segments of the population, especially in rural areas.
National support for the Pheu Thai Party was nearly 50% in the latest quarterly assessment by the National Institute of Development Administration.
There was some speculation that the country's health minister Anutin Charnvirakul could also throw his hat in the ring as a candidate for the Bhumjaithai party.
The candidates have been stomping the trail for months and introducing policy goals after recent protests that have called for reforming the nation's military constitution.
Last week, the European Union and Thailand announced renewed trade negotiations that could lead to a robust agreement between the 27-nation bloc and Asia's second-largest economy.