Updated at 11:58 a.m. ET on 2019-03-23
Thailand’s top political parties homed in on support from voters in the capital Bangkok on Friday, as their leaders drew cheers from thousands while wrapping up their campaigns before Sunday’s general election, the first since a 2014 military coup.
Appearing for the first time at an official campaign rally, junta chief and incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha sang and accepted roses from supporters. He vowed to lead the Buddhist-majority nation out of divisive politics.
“From now on, we must join together to carry on what we have done in the past five years to lessen conflicts,” Prayuth, the leading candidate for PM of the pro-junta Palang Pracharact Party, told 4,000 supporters at Thephasdin Stadium.
As Prayuth urged his supporters to “love the nation, religion and the monarchy,” a giant TV screen displayed a video in which he was seen hugging children, harvesting rice and working during his years as chief of the junta, officially known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).
Some 51.4 million Thais are eligible to vote in the March 24 election. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Eighty-seven percent of Thais who signed up to vote early on March 17 exercised their right, leading pundits to predict a heavy turnout on Election Day.
On Friday, opposition party leaders Abhisit Vejjajiva and Sudarat Keyuraphan separately pitched their electoral promises on the final day of campaigning in Bangkok.
Abhisit, leader of the Democrat Party, which has tried to position itself as the compromise choice, slammed the Pheu Thai Party, the main opposition party affiliated with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“This party [Pheu Thai] doesn’t talk honestly. But it takes the frustration and the discomfort of the people toward the unelected government to create tense atmosphere for its own purpose,” Abhisit told a crowd of about 3,000 who gathered at Lan Kon Meaung square.
“So it [Pheu Thai] doesn’t focus on policy but it is determined to win in politics,” he said as his supporters cheered.
Sudarat, the high-profile candidate of the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, underscored Thaksin’s financial skills during his term as prime minister from 2001 until 2006, when he was overthrown in a military coup.
“As Prime Minister Thaksin took office, he shored up the economy quickly in the first year. And he paid off debt to the IMF [International Monetary Fund] before it was due in two years,” Sudarat, 57, said.
She said her party would need “only six months” to solve the nation’s economic problems.
Sudarat co-founded the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai party, which literally means “Thais love Thais,” alongside Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire. She also served in his cabinet twice.
Although Thaksin hasn’t set foot in Thailand since 2008, he retains a loyal following, according to analysts. He is in self-imposed exile and lives with his younger sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was deposed in the 2014 coup. She fled the country in 2017 rather than face possible prison time in a criminal case related to a failed rice subsidy scheme.
Elsewhere in the Thai capital, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the 40-year-old leader of the Future Forward Party and prime ministerial hopeful who has attracted a large following among young voters, also held his final campaign rally.
The vote on Sunday will determine the 500 members of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the bicameral legislature.
Of the 500 House seats, 350 will be directly elected on Sunday and another 150 “party-list seats” will be assigned based on overall results, under new procedures put in place by the junta.
A 2017 junta-drafted Constitution gives the NCPO the power to appoint all 250 members of the Senate, the upper house of parliament. Under the new rules, a minimum of 376 out of a total 750 seats from both houses of parliament are needed to select a new prime minister.
It is not yet clear when those Senate seats will be announced, although Prayuth has a deadline to propose senators for the king’s signature by April 27.
Earlier this week, Election Commission chief Ittiporn Boonprakong said 95 percent of the votes would be counted three hours after the polls close on Sunday, due to new rapid reporting technology in use this year.
Official results are not due until May 9, just days after the royal coronation.
Political analysts say that apart from postponing polls at least five times since the May 2014 coup, the junta has taken moves during the past five years that skewed the system heavily in favor of a continuation of military rule.
“The junta can clearly count on the 250-member appointed Senate to back them,” according to BenarNews political analyst Zachary Abuza.
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly stated the polls opening at 7 a.m. Sunday.