BANGKOK: Thailand headed to the polls on Sunday (Mar 24) in its first general election since the military coup in 2014.
Tens of millions of eligible voters were expected to turn up in force at polling stations nationwide, to be a part of their country’s transition from military rule to democracy.
Polls opened at 8am local time and closed at 5pm.
Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit from the Future Forward party were among those casting their votes on Sunday.
Other leading prime ministerial candidates voted in Bangkok, including Sudarat Keyuraphan from the Pheu Thai party and Abhisit Vejjajiva from the Democrat party.
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Since the military coup in May 2014, Thailand has been riding an uncertain road back towards a democratic system.
A new constitution, introduced in 2017, changed the electoral system in a way that critics say favours the military government.
In the previous election in 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra led the Pheu Thai party to the win the popular vote. She became prime minister before she was ousted.
Under the new electoral system, however, having the most number of MPs in the 500-seat House of Representatives may not be enough to win the premiership.
The constitution, drafted by a military-backed committee, empowers 250 military-backed senators to join 500 MPs in selecting the prime minister during the initial period.
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A prospective prime minister must be approved by more than half of the combined 750-member assembly. As a result, a political party needs to garner at least 376 votes in a joint sitting – either from both the Upper and Lower Houses or only from the latter’s 500 members – in order for its candidate to win the premiership and form the government.
Compared to other parties, Palang Pracharat will have a clear and built-in advantage in this election, thanks to the 250 senators that will be selected by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and Gen Prayut himself.
It means that Palang Pracharat could be in a position to form the government – even if it wins as few as 126 of the 500 parliamentary seats up for grabs.
Prayut’s candidacy is largely seen as the military’s attempt to maintain its grip on Thai politics.
The 65-year-old holds popularity among certain demographics who approve of the military’s seizure of power. They regard it as an effort to bridge the deep socio-political divisions that had brought violence to the streets during the Yingluck administration and threatened to tear the nation apart.
Yingluck and her powerful brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are both in exile overseas but still hold great influence over large parts of the population, particularly in rural areas.
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A total of 81 parties are contesting the election, and thousands of candidates will fight to represent 350 constituencies. The other 150 members of the House of Representatives will be elected from the so-called national party lists under a system of proportional representation.
This will see each party that contests the party-list election have a number of MPs in the House of Representatives, according to the share of the popular vote it secures in the contest for the 350 directly elected members.
Parties can still secure seats in parliament under this system irrespective of whether their candidates win any of the 350 contests.
Preliminary results of Sunday’s election, which will be a crucial indication of Thailand’s next political chapter, are expected to come in at about 8pm.