Thaksin allies face uphill battle in bid to oust Thai junta

In this Thursday, March 21, 2019, photo, a supporter takes a selfie with the leader of the Pheu Thai Party and candidate for prime minister Sudarat Keyuraphan, right, during an election rally in Bangkok, Thailand. The political movement that has won every Thai election in nearly two decades is facing its biggest test yet: Squaring off against the allies of the military junta that removed it from power and rewrote the electoral rules with the goal of putting an end to those victories. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
In this Thursday, March 21, 2019, photo, the leader of the Pheu Thai Party and candidate for prime minister Sudarat Keyuraphan, center rear, takes photos with supporters during an election campaign rally in Bangkok, Thailand. The political movement that has won every Thai election in nearly two decades is facing its biggest test yet: Squaring off against the allies of the military junta that removed it from power and rewrote the electoral rules with the goal of putting an end to those victories. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
In this Thursday, March 21, 2019, photo, supporters hug the leader of the Pheu Thai Party and candidate for prime minister Sudarat Keyuraphan during an election rally in Bangkok, Thailand. The political movement that has won every Thai election in nearly two decades is facing its biggest test yet: Squaring off against the allies of the military junta that removed it from power and rewrote the electoral rules with the goal of putting an end to those victories. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
In this Feb. 15, 2019, photo, the leader of the Pheu Thai Party and candidate for prime minister Sudarat Keyuraphan waves to supporters during an election rally in Bangkok, Thailand. More than 70 parties are contesting Sunday's general election in Thailand, the first since a military coup nearly five years ago. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK — The political movement that has won every Thai election in nearly two decades is facing its biggest test yet: Squaring off against the allies of the military junta that removed it from power and rewrote the electoral rules with the goal of putting an end to those victories.

The latest public face of that movement, Pheu Thai party leader Sudarat Keyuraphan, warned that Sunday's vote will be anything but free and fair. Nevertheless, she is urging voters to turn out in force if they want any chance at derailing the junta's efforts to keep the coup-maker and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in office.

"We have to tell the people that it's the only day that we can stop Prayuth extending his power," Sudarat told The Associated Press in an interview. "Therefore we need many people to go vote. I believe the power they have is not any bigger than the power of the people."

The vote will be the first since Prayuth, at the time the army chief, led a military coup that toppled the Pheu Thai-led government in May 2014 and put an end to months of political unrest. Prayuth said his coup was the only way to heal longstanding political divisions and to kick off reforms throughout Thai society that he said would "return happiness to the people."

Nearly five years on, Sudarat said Thailand is worse off. She said income inequality has increased and many Thais have struggled economically under military rule, while a few wealthy business owning families prospered.

"The economic opportunities are gone. It's hard to make a living. We could see that throughout these five years under the military regime, it has widened the inequality gap," she said.

Pocketbook issues have been the bread and butter for Pheu Thai and all of its predecessors since the movement was kicked off in 1998, when telecoms billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra founded what was then known as the Thai Rak Thai party. Sudarat was one of the other founding members.

In 2001 the party swept to a landslide victory with policies such as universal health care aimed at uplifting the country's poorer rural population. Thaksin went on to become the first Thai prime minister to ever complete a full term in office.

But his popularity and authoritarian tendencies rubbed many in the country's conservative establishment the wrong way. In addition to accusations of corruption and abuse of power, some said he was seeking to usurp the traditional role of the monarchy at the center of Thai society.

Thaksin denied all of the allegations, but nevertheless in September 2006 the military stepped in and overthrew his government in a coup.

That set off a cycle of political instability that has followed a familiar pattern for Thailand: Election, unrest, military intervention, new constitution, election and repeat.

After Thaksin's sister led his movement to another landslide in 2011, it took just two years before anti-government protests broke out and less than three years for Prayuth and the military to seize power.

This time, the military commissioned a constitution that aims to weaken the power of large political parties such as Pheu Thai. It also allows an unelected senate — its members all junta appointees — to join with the elected lower house of parliament in a vote for the next prime minister.

If the senators all vote for Prayuth as many expect, that means he would need the support of just over 25 percent of the lower house to remain premier. In that same scenario, Sudarat and Pheu Thai would need three quarters of the lower house seats for her to become prime minister.

Sudarat said measures such as the unelected Senate "distorts the will of the people."

"In 2014, they seized power from the people by the coup, by the barrel of a gun," Sudarat said. "In 2019, the same junta is plotting to extend its power."

Still, Sudarat said she was hopeful that with a large enough turnout her party would win enough seats to at least block Prayuth from the premiership.

Sudarat herself is veteran politician, having first entered politics in 1991, when she won house seat in Bangkok with the reformist Palang Dharma Party, which was Thaksin's first entry into politics. In 1994 she became deputy transport minister in a coalition government.

After the 2001 victory, she was appointed public health minister, and in 2006 she became agriculture minister. After the 2006 coup, she was one of 111 Thai Rak Thai party executives banned from politics for five years when a court disbanded the party for breaking election laws.

While in 2011 Pheu Thai ran under the slogan "Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts," this time around Thaksin has denied any involvement with the party. Fresh election rules forbid parties from being led by outsiders, especially one like Thaksin, who lives in exile to avoid a prison term he says was politically motivated.

Sudarat said Thaksin is no longer part of the party's apparatus but remains its ideological leader.

"We use his principles," she said. "But using Thaksin's ideas doesn't mean he owns the party because Thaksin is not involved with the party's administration anymore."

Sudarat said the party's supporters remain loyal to Thaksin because his policies were able to improve their lives.

"They love Thaksin because Thaksin was able to solve their problems," she said. "We still stand by the principle of trying to lower expenditures for the people, increasing income for the people, and creating new opportunities for the people."

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