Thailand has alternated between periods of elected and military rule. The government until the election due on 24 March is a military regime which took power in a coup in May 2014. There were severe restrictions on political activity and protest until the end of 2018, when the repression was relaxed to permit parties to develop and make their cases in advance of the general election.
Before the coup, the elected government had been run by Yingluck Shinawatra since elections in 2011. She is banned from taking part in these elections, as is her brother Thaksin, and they remain in exile.There were elections in February 2014 which were disrupted by opposition protests and whose results were officially nullified by the constitutional court.
The timing of the election and the return to semi-democratic rule are influenced by two considerations. One is the coronation of the new King, Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, which is scheduled for 4-6 May and is a major occasion in a country where reverence for the monarchy is enforced by law and the king is politically powerful. The other occasion is Thailand’s desire to get its house in order before it hosts the ASEAN summit in June.
Thailand, when under democratic regimes, has a parliamentary system in which the Prime Minister relies on the support of a majority in parliament. The situation is complicated by the continued political power of the monarchy and the institutions associated with the monarchy, including the military.
The electoral law introduced by the military regime establishes a lower house of parliament with 500 seats and an upper house with 250 seats. 350 of the lower house seats are elected from single member districts, while the remaining 150 seats are elected proportionally from party lists and is intended to give representation to smaller parties.
The upper house is appointed by the current military junta (244 seats) and a few other seats appointed by the military and the police (6 seats).
Installing a Prime Minister requires a majority of the two houses voting together, i.e. 376 votes.
However, to run a stable government requires a majority in the lower house.
The three main political forces in this election are as follows:
Pheu Thai, which is the political party associated with the pre-2014 government. It is a populist-left party whose support is strongest in the poorer, more minority-ethnic regions of the north and east, particularly among poorer farmers, and it has won every election in which it has been allowed to contest.
Palang Pracharat, which is the main political party associated with supporters of the current military junta and is generally on the populist authoritarian nationalist right. Several ministers in the military government are standing for election.
Democratic Party, which is the longest-established party in Thai politics and the previous main competitor to Pheu Thai, which covers a range of views from centre-right clean government to authoritarian.
There are other political parties, including some like Future Forward which are potential allies of Pheu Thai.
What will happen
No party is expected to win a majority in the lower house election, although it is probable that Pheu Thai will be the largest single party in a fair election.
When it comes to nominating the Prime Minister, Palang Pracharat has an inbuilt advantage because of its control of the upper house; it only needs 126 out of 500 seats in the elected lower house in order to have a majority in the combined houses of parliament. The threshold for Pheu Thai is 376 seats out of 500 in the lower house, which is very difficult to achieve in a divided country with a part-proportional electoral system.
A situation could arise in which a Prime Minister is chosen by the two houses together but cannot sustain a stable majority in the lower house.
The new system in Thailand can be described as semi-democratic at best.
Hannah Ellis-Petersen ‘Thailand to hold elections on 24 March’ Guardian 23 January 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/23/thailand-marks-stilted-return-to-democracy-with-march-election
Masayuki Yuda ‘5 things to know about Thailand’s long-awaited election’ Nikkei Asian Review 4 January 2019 https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Turbulent-Thailand/5-things-to-know-about-Thailand-s-long-awaited-election