1 of 8 | Thailand will head to the polls on Sunday for an election that is seeing a challenge to establishment politics by the pro-democracy Move Forward Party and youthful candidates such as Rukchanok Srinork (L). Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
BANGKOK, May 12 (UPI) -- Thailand heads to the polls on Sunday for a general election poised to shake off a decade of military rule and push the kingdom toward a more democratic future that may include curbing the power of the monarchy.
Opposition parties are leading the polls by a wide margin over the establishment coalition led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who seized power in a military coup in 2014 and is running for re-election with the United Thai Nation Party.
The front-runner is the populist Pheu Thai party, which has dominated electoral politics for the past two decades but has repeatedly been removed from power by military coups and judicial interventions.
One of Pheu Thai's candidates for prime minister is 36-year-old Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the newest member of a political dynasty that has built a power base by appealing to Thailand's rural and working-class populations.
Paetongtarn's father, the billionaire telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, was prime minister before being ousted in a 2006 coup. Her aunt Yingluck was elected prime minister in 2011 and then also removed by the military in 2014.
However, it is the rising force of a progressive, youth-driven Move Forward Party that has many observers seeing the potential for real change in Thailand.
"Move Forward is the new game in Thailand," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told UPI. "It turns the dial in Thai politics from a battle between the conservative-royalist establishment revolving around the military, monarchy and judiciary on one hand and Thaksin's political forces on the other."
Sunday's poll will be Thailand's "most pivotal election to date," Thitinan said. "MFP is taking Thai politics to the next level by demanding structural reforms of established centers of power, particularly the military and the monarchy."
Move Forward has surged to second in the polls behind its 42-year-old Harvard-educated leader Pita Limjaroenrat, with an ambitious agenda that looks to rewrite the constitution, end military conscription and -- most radically -- reform the lese-majeste law that makes it a crime to insult King Vajiralongkorn or members of the royal family.
The party is a successor of the Future Forward Party, which won the third-most seats in the last general election, held in 2019.
Future Forward was quickly dissolved by Thailand's constitutional court, however, and its leaders were barred from politics for 10 years over alleged finance violations. The move, which many saw as politically motivated, helped spark a student-led pro-democracy movement that saw tens of thousands take to the streets in 2020 calling for a curb of the monarchy's wealth and power.
Several of the young people who took part in the protests are running as candidates with Move Forward.
"This [election] is a turning point for Thai politics," Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, a Move Forward candidate for parliament, told UPI at a rally Friday night in Bangkok. "The change that we need, we need it now. We cannot hesitate any longer."
Taopiphop, 34, who won a seat in parliament in 2019 under the Future Forward banner, called the nearly 10 years since the military coup a "lost decade."
"My 20s are gone, I've lost the best part of my life," he said. "People believe Move Forward will move Thailand out of this cycle and bring change to the core of the system."
While Move Forward represents an ideological shift away from years of authoritarian politics, this election will also be a practical referendum on Prayuth's rule, which has been widely criticized for a sluggish economy and a poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I want to see new opportunities in Thailand," said a 27-year-old rally-goer using the single name Baifern. "This is the first time I am voting because I want to see the economy change. I think [Move Forward] can bring Thailand more equality and more development."
Even as the main pro-democracy parties are far ahead in the polls, forming the next government will present a challenge.
The prime minister needs a majority of votes from the elected 500-seat House of Representatives and the appointed 250-member Senate, which the military has firm control over thanks to its post-coup 2017 constitution.
A coalition government between Pheu Thai and Move Forward appears unlikely due to a schism over Move Forward's ambitious plans for monarchy reform, Thitinan said.
Analysts say Pheu Thai may instead look to find support from conservative senators by nominating a candidate other than Paetongtarn Shinawatra or joining forces with another former general, Prawit Wongsuwan, the candidate for the Palang Pracharat party.
Meanwhile, Prayuth could still conceivably stay in power by cobbling together a minority government.
Thailand's long history of coups also casts a shadow over any potential outcome, but Move Forward's Taopiphop said the time for such anti-democratic tactics has passed.
"If the Thai elite class does not adapt, we will lose even more of our future," he said. "If they try to do some trick in this election or try to disband our party again, the people won't accept it anymore."