The general election in Thailand this weekend is being seen as a crucial test as to whether voters will welcome the return to power of the political vehicle of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra or choose to retain the status quo under the incumbent conservative government, political pundits say.

Sunday's election comes at a time when current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is running for re-election under a new party, and his alliance is facing a strong opposition force led by the main one, the Pheu Thai Party.

Pheu Thai is projected to win the most seats in the House of Representatives, while the smaller, liberal Move Forward Party, which is popular among young voters, is also strong in opinion polls.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a veteran journalist on regional affairs, said he sees this upcoming election as one that will fully place Thailand in the "community of democratic countries."

Prayut staged a coup to topple the Pheu Thai-led elected government in May 2014 when he was the army chief and subsequently became interim prime minister of a military-run government. He returned to power under a civilian government after the 2019 election.

"This weekend, the Thai voters can vote and change the country as they wish to see," Kavi said, adding that the young voters are likely to vote for progressive parties while the baby boomers would opt for conservative parties.

The closely watched election will pick 500 members of the lower house of parliament.

File photo shows former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra giving an interview at a Tokyo hotel on March 24, 2023. (Kyodo)

On the prospects of the election, Stithorn Thananithichote, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok's Institute, a conservative think tank, said he expects Pheu Thai to win but not by a landslide, thus making it hard for the party to form a government.

"Pheu Thai will secure around 170-200 seats, or slightly above 200, so it needs to find allies in forming the government, and the allies could be one of its political rivals like (the ruling party) Palang Pracharath," he said.

Thaksin's youngest daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, and Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, the leader of Move Forward, have topped recent opinion polls as favorite candidates for prime minister, while Prayut, 69, has trailed behind these two young politicians.

The power to elect the prime minister belongs to members of the lower and upper houses, with the approval of more than half of a joint parliamentary meeting.

According to Stithorn, Pheu Thai is forecast to share votes with Move Forward, which won around 80 seats in the previous election in 2019 under its predecessor, the now-dissolved Future Forward Party.

Should Pheu Thai win a landslide, Paetongtarn, who has been uniting the party on behalf of her father in exile, can become the prime minister, Stithorn said.

But if Pheu Thai does not win a landslide and fails to cobble together a coalition government, Stithorn said Thailand will have Prayut as its prime minister again with the support of the current coalition parties that are in power.

Prayut is running in the polls as a prime ministerial candidate under a new party, United Thai Nation. He will not run, though, for a seat in parliament.

Thaksin's hope to return home will be dimmed under a Prayut-led caretaker government that has been critical of the ousted leader, the political expert added.

The fugitive former prime minister tweeted Tuesday that he will return to Thailand soon before his birthday in July, after he escaped trials for tax evasion and corruption cases and spent nearly 17 years in self-imposed exile.

Thaksin is facing around 10 years in prison while some cases are ongoing.

But for Jade Donavanik, a professor of law from Dhurakij Pundit University, he sees the chance of Prayut's return to power as "slim" as the United Thai Nation is unlikely to secure enough seats to ensure he can be the leader to form a coalition government.

Jade also said another headwind for Prayut is that he has been in power for a total of eight years which is "way too long."

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