The fundamental risk in Thailand's election this Sunday is that ruling incumbents, spearheaded by coup-maker-cum-prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and underpinned by the powers-that-be, are headed for a big loss. Yet they are unlikely to go away without distortion, subversion, and confrontation, as has been the case in the recent past. Unless the poll results are clear and unassailable, it is likely that more funny business will be put in motion after the election.
Although over 60 parties are battling for the 500-seat lower House, six will garner the lion's share. These are lined up between the coalition government -- mainly the Palang Pracharath (PPRP), United Thai Nation (UTN), Bhumjaithai (BJT), and Democrat parties -- and the opposition Pheu Thai (PTP) and Move Forward (MFP) parties, excluding smaller parties which are likely to grab just a handful of seats, such as Chartthaipattana, Thai Sang Thai, Prachachart and the Thai Liberal Party.
Among the major parties in the final stretch, Pheu Thai has a big lead in excess of 200 out of 500 seats, followed by the MFP with upwards of the 81 it garnered in 2019, perhaps more if its remarkable momentum holds. The BJT has polled as the third largest with a range of 60-80 seats, with Gen Prawit Wongsuwon's PPRP and Gen Prayut's UTN coming in at around 40-50 seats, or about half that for the Democrat Party, surveys show.
In a straightforward election, Pheu Thai and the MFP should be able to form a coalition, as both have topped various polls and are on course to combine for more than half of the lower House. Their overlapping agendas include military reforms and a new constitution crafted by people's representatives rather than a military-appointed committee.
The issue that sets them apart from the rest is the reform of the monarchy. Owing in part to Thaksin Shinawatra's longstanding intent to negotiate a return home since he went into self-exile in 2006, Pheu Thai prefers issues related to the monarchy to be settled in a new constitution, whereas the MFP wants the monarchy held to account at the earliest opportunity.
Because of this fault line over how and when the military and monarchy should be reformed, the two parties will not make easy partners.
There are three major modalities to a potential coalition government.
The first is the continuation of the Prayut regime, despite unfavourable poll numbers. In the event the UTN wins the 25-seat minimum required to nominate its prime ministerial candidate, Gen Prayut's strategy could be to get himself voted in for another term with the military-appointed Senate's backing, and then use the premiership to leverage for other parties to join him in forming a coalition, even a minority government if necessary.
This would mean a rickety government, legislative gridlock, and government collapse during key votes. Yet the Gen Prayut-fronted regime may be desperate to keep the MFP and Pheu Thai out of power, preferring to cross one bridge at a time, with the help of referee agencies such as the electoral and anti-corruption commissions and the Constitutional Court, backed by the army as a last resort.
The second scenario is a Pheu Thai-MFP alliance being called on and encouraged by progressives and establishment critics. However, as these two opposition parties are unlikely to come up with a simple bicameral majority of 376 (in the 250-strong Senate and 500-member lower House), the appointed senators would stand in their way. The army would also probably object to what it sees as radicalism in the MFP's reform agenda.
The MFP, as its leaders have openly admitted, will likely land again in the opposition with its forward-looking campaign. But that would allow the MFP to gain even more strength and a wider base. No wonder its leaders have suggested it will take three elections for their agenda to come to the fore.
The third plausible case looks unpleasant but may be the most workable. It would combine Pheu Thai with the PPRP as the core of the post-poll coalition government, probably including Bhumjaithai and others, but not the UTN or MFP.
Pheu Thai's base rejects Gen Prayut and dislikes the PPRP's Gen Prawit, a fellow coup-maker. But Gen Prawit has distanced himself from Gen Prayut, and a Pheu Thai-PPRP deal would break up the Senate vote and possibly be palatable to the establishment.
Accordingly, the PPRP is shaping up to play a kingmaker role in the post-poll government. If it goes with the UTN, Gen Prayut may somehow return, although voter results may well be stacked against him. But if the PPRP turns to Pheu Thai, perhaps as part of a deal that would enable Pheu Thai founder Thaksin to return from exile, then the Shinawatra clan will be back in power.
Even if so, Pheu Thai may not get to choose its own prime minister because of the appointed Senate.
It's one thing to win the election in Thailand, but something else to form a government, and yet something else entirely for the biggest winning party to forward its own prime minister. This is why and how Gen Prayut has stayed on for the past four years, on top of the prior five years of the post-coup military government.
Unless the voting results are beyond any doubt, and show a substantial victory margin, the post-poll government formation process could be drawn-out and stuck in a deadlock, with Gen Prayut remaining in charge in the interim.
But if the electorate's choice is indisputable, any tricky business to try and thwart and overturn the outcome, in view of the military coups and judicial dissolutions of the recent past, would likely bring about social unrest.
The more foul play that unfolds, such as military takeovers, party dissolutions and the disqualifications of elected representatives, the likelier it is that street demonstrations return.