Updated at 12:34 p.m. ET on 2019-02-25
Buddhist-majority Thailand is scheduled to hold national elections on March 24, the country’s first general polls since a military coup in 2014. Political analysts say there are four names to look out for as leading potential contenders for the prime minister’s role:
Palang Pracharat Party
Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the incumbent prime minister and junta chief, spearheaded a coup that toppled Yingluck Shinawatra’s government on May 22, 2014. The military justified Yingluck’s overthrow by saying she had failed to end deadly street protests that raged on for almost nine months.
Prayuth, 64, formed the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta’s official name, and installed himself as prime minister in August 2014.
A former army chief, Prayuth promised to quickly shepherd the nation of 69 million people back toward democracy, but the military has been in effective control since he unseated Yingluck, who later fled into self-imposed exile with her older brother Thaksin, who was also ousted by the military in 2006.
Born in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, Prayuth graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, which is considered the nation’s equivalent of West Point in the United States.
Prayuth is believed to be staunchly loyal to the monarchy. He strengthened his ties with the royal palace as he began his military career in the prestigious Queen’s Guard Unit.
He rose through the ranks, serving as chief of staff of the Royal Thai Army from 2008 and 2009. He became the commander-in-chief in 2010 after briefly serving as honorary adjutant to the king.
Under Prayuth’s leadership, the junta cracked down on any perceived forms of dissent, banned political forums, detained activists and gagged the press. Prayuth retired as army chief in January 2016 but remained in power as prime minister, during which he oversaw the drafting of a new constitution.
Two weeks ago, Prayuth accepted an invitation by Palang Pracharat Party, led by his former ministers, to be its pick for prime minister.
In an interview with Time magazine in June 2018, Prayuth defended his decision to overthrow civilian rule. He said the nation “was at the brink of destruction.”
“It was the most difficult decision I ever made in my life,” he said. “Personally, I never wanted to obtain power this way, never imagine becoming the prime minister like this.”
Pheu Thai Party
Sudarat Keyuraphan, the high-profile candidate of the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, is a close ally of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Sudarat, 57, holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in business administration from Chulalongkorn University, a public research institution in Bangkok, where she was born.
She served as minister of public health before becoming minister of agriculture and cooperatives under Thaksin. He was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in exile after a corruption conviction, which his supporters described as politically motivated.
Sudarat, who is married to construction magnate Somyos Leelapanyalert, began her political career in 1991 when she was elected as a member of parliament. In 1994, she was appointed secretary-general of the Palang Dharma Party.
In 1998, she co-founded the Thai Rak Thai Party with Thaksin. Three years later, she was appointed public health minister after her re-election as a member of parliament.
Seen as the main challenger to Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Sudarat faces an uphill battle because the ruling junta, during the past five years, has enacted legislation that would virtually prevent any single political party from winning a majority of parliamentary seats.
Pheu Thai, considered by analysts as the flagship party of Thaksin’s political machines, has won every national election since 2001. But Thaksin has avoided direct involvement with Sudarat, as junta-imposed election rules inhibit parties from being led by outsiders.
During a campaign in the nation’s capital early this month, Sudarat accused the junta of harming the country’s economy. She vowed to bring back prosperity.
“The time is up for the tank government,” she said, in an apparent jab at the army that often rolls out tanks during coup attempts.
“It’s time for professional economists,” she said. “It’s time for Pheu Thai to save the economy.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, who served as Thai prime minister from 2008 to 2011, leads the Democrat Party.
Abhisit, 54, is distinctly upper class, hailing from a wealthy family of Thai-Chinese ancestry. He was born in Wallsend, England, on Aug. 3, 1964, and was educated at England’s top public school, Eton College. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s in economics from St. John’s College at Oxford University. He holds dual Thai and British citizenship.
Before going into politics, he was a lecturer at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy. He then returned to Oxford for his master’s before studying at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok, where he received his bachelor’s in law.
Abhisit began his political career in 1992 when he joined the nation’s oldest party, the Democrats, and was elected into the House of Representatives. At 27, he was then one of the parliament’s youngest-ever members. He was re-elected to the same seat in 1995 and 1996.
He served as a government spokesman and a minister to the Prime Minister’s Office for then premier Chuan Leekpai. In 2005, he became leader of the Democrat Party.
Abhisit became prime minister on Dec. 17, 2008, after the Constitutional Court found the ruling party, led by Thaksin Shinawatra’s supporters, guilty of electoral fraud. That allowed Abhisit and his allies to form a new government, becoming a prime minister – at age 44 – without calling for a general election.
But Abhisit served at a time when the nation struggled with rising unemployment and budget deficits.
In 2010, Abhisit’s government faced a major political crisis: Thousands of Thaksin’s supporters paralyzed parts of Bangkok with major protests and more than 90 people were killed when the military swooped in to clear the demonstrations, according to various reports.
Abhisit dissolved parliament and called for a general election in 2011, but he quickly conceded defeat to the main opposition party, Pheu Thai, which was then led by Yingluck Shinawatra.
In December 2013, Abhisit was formally charged with murder in connection with the crackdown on the demonstrators three years earlier. The former prime minister denied the charges and was granted bail. He was acquitted by the Supreme Court in August 2017.
Future Forward Party
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit entered Thailand’s turbulent politics with a mission to transform Thai society, offering democracy as an alternative to military rule.
Thanathorn, a scion of the country’s largest auto-parts company, leads the Future Forward Party.
“Give democracy a chance,” the American- and British-educated candidate told reporters at the launch of his party in March 2018.
Thanathorn said he hoped to win the support of “ordinary people,” as he jabbed at the ruling junta.
Thanathorn, 40, has grabbed headlines with his statements under a military regime, which rights groups have criticized for its repressive laws. Despite claiming he got multiple death threats, Thanathorn has publicly discussed his idealistic ideas, making him an appealing political prospect to the nation’s young, educated and urban electorate.
“This is not an era for coups in Thailand. This is the 21st century and people want to see the country return to democracy,” he told BenarNews last week as he campaigned at Suan Dusit Rajabhat university in Bangkok.
Such statements are rare in a country that has seen multiple coups since 1932, and where appeasing the military has always been seen as essential for political success, analysts said.
Thanathorn is former executive vice president of the Thai Summit Group, a privately held auto-parts company. He was born in and grew up in Bangkok, the second eldest in a family of five children.
He received his bachelor’s degree in engineering from Thammasat University, and his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Nottingham. He also holds three master’s degrees. During his college years, he was known as a student activist.
On Aug. 24 last year, Thai police charged Thanathorn and two senior leaders of Future Forward Party with violating the nation’s Computer Crime Act, which could result in five-year prison terms.
The complaint, filed on behalf of the junta, alleged that Thanathorn violated a section of the law, which makes it a crime to transmit false information or information that damages the country’s stability, according to Future Forward spokeswoman Pannika Wanich.
Col. Burin Thongprapai, chief legal officer for the junta, told reporters that he filed the charges because in a Facebook live broadcast Thanathorn had made accusations against the country’s leaders and twisted facts.
“I know that by starting this party, it seriously means I might go to jail tomorrow,” Thanathorn told reporters. “But there’s no other way we can make a positive change in this country until there is a new political party of the people.”