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Thai junta chief in pole position as showdown vote on PM looms
[BANGKOK] Thailand's new lawmakers are due to vote for a prime minister on Wednesday, with junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha in pole position to sweep away the challenge of a charismatic billionaire leading the anti-military bloc.
Mr Prayut, who seized power in 2014, is all but assured the post through 250 senators appointed by the junta.
But he faces competition from Future Forward party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who is besieged by court cases but adored by millennials, and in a sudden late move was put on the prime minister ticket of an anti-junta coalition.
Thailand remains bitterly divided after 15 years of coups, violent protests and short-lived governments in a festering rivalry between an arch-royalist conservative establishment and parties drawing support from the poor and middle class.
Parliament is deciding on the top post more than two months after the first election since a 2014 coup, a poll marred by allegations of inaccurate counting and vote-buying.
Tensions built the day before the vote as opposing sides made final arguments for their candidates.
"Prayut has the qualities, has the capability, the leadership to do the job," Uttama Savanayana, the leader of junta proxy party Palang Pracharat, told AFP.
UNEXPECTED THIRD FORCE
Mr Prayut also has strong support in the Thai senate, which is stacked with army leaders and junta allies including his own brother.
The election was widely seen as a choice between junta-backed rule and parties aligned with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, whose administration was toppled in 2014.
But an unexpected third force emerged with billionaire auto parts scion Thanathorn, whose Future Forward won more than six million votes and 81 seats to become Thailand's third largest party.
The social media savvy 40-year-old is in a coalition with Shinawatra political machine Pheu Thai and five other parties.
They agreed on Tuesday to put him forward as the sole candidate in the vote for prime minister.
Analysts say Mr Thanathorn is the junta's biggest fear while also representing a fresh change for voters weary of the Shinawatra's influence.
Mr Thanathorn has been hamstrung by legal complaints that led to his suspension from parliament and a dramatic walk-out on its early sessions.
He said on Tuesday that the suspension had nothing to do with qualifying as a candidate for prime minister, and he called on swing parties to back him in the vote.
"The most important thing is to return Thailand to democracy," he told reporters. "And to stop Prayut to come back as prime minister."
Assuming the Thai senate votes along junta lines, Mr Thanathorn would need a gargantuan 376 votes in the lower house while Mr Prayut only needs 126.
Known for his irascible temper, Mr Prayut may not attend the session. But he received a boost on the eve of the vote with a crucial mid-sized party pledging the final backing he appears to need to sweep the parliamentary vote.
The all-important decision could descend into squabbling if critics use it as a platform to take shots at the general's legitimacy.
"Politicians will try to make scenes... to expose Prayut," said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist as Ubon Ratchathani University.
However it won't affect the outcome. "That's all they can do," he said.