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Thai parties head into final battle ahead of Sunday vote

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai political parties geared up on Friday for their largest rallies yet, two days ahead of the country’s first election since a military coup nearly five years ago, but one that critics say will deny power to the most popular party.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks during a news conference on the Fourth Year Performance Report at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, February 1, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Supporters of a pro-army party that has nominated junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as its candidate for prime minister and the opposition Pheu Thai party will gather separately in Bangkok before sunset for last-gasp campaigning.

Pheu Thai, removed from power by the military in 2014, is linked to ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecommunication tycoon whose loyalists have won every general election since 2001.

Sunday’s general elections have been cast as a high-stakes contest between democracy and military rule, but critics believe they have been rigged by a new army-backed constitution giving military-appointed officials a large say in the next government.

The military government says the new rules will bring stability after more than a decade of fractious, at times violent, politics.

Thailand’s largest party, Pheu Thai, is leading the charge for a “democratic front” of parties against Palang Pracharat, a new military proxy party backing junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Backers of the military have warned the country could be plunged back into political unrest if Pheu Thai returned to power.

Asked on Friday if another coup was possible after the poll, deputy junta leader Prawit Wongsuwan replied, “No, no, no.”

“VOTE STRATEGICALLY”

Pheu Thai’s long-time rival, the Democrat Party, will also hold a final rally in Bangkok.

Pro-establishment and pro-business, it hopes to hold the key to power after an inconclusive election, returning its leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, to the prime minister’s office he held unelected from 2008 to 2011.

Polls indicate Pheu Thai will again be the top vote-winner, and it hopes with its allies to make up the largest bloc in the 500-seat House of Representatives.

But that may not matter, because the new constitution written by the junta allows parliament’s upper house, the 250-seat Senate, to vote with the lower house to choose the prime minister – and the Senate is entirely appointed by the junta.

The magic number of seats parties or alliances need to secure to form a government is 376, or one more than half the total number in the two houses of parliament.

With the military choosing all Senate members, pro-military parties would probably need to win only 126 seats in the House of Representatives to win a majority in a combined vote.

Pheu Thai urged voters to be strategic.

“The rules in this election are designed to put the people at a disadvantage. If you don’t want to give in to despair, you need to vote strategically,” it said in a Facebook post early on Friday. “You need to vote for Pheu Thai for a landslide win!”

Parties and candidates are allowed to campaign until 6 p.m. (1100 GMT) on Saturday.

The next day, 93,200 polling stations will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (0100-1000 GMT) across the country.

The election commission has said unofficial results will be available three hours after the stations close on Sunday.

Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by John Chalmers and Clarence Fernandez

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