BANGKOK — After two years of battling the COVID-19 pandemic and facing political unrest, Thailand is looking ahead to general elections and a bumper year for tourism in 2023.
Experts say the elections could promote further economic growth and create stability for the kingdom.
While facing economic setbacks due to the pandemic, Thailand struggled with anti-government demonstrations, with protesters calling for a change in government and a reform of the monarchy and criticizing the country’s COVID-19 policy.
The demonstrations slowed in 2022, in part because of the relaxation of health restrictions and an economic boost as Thailand reopened its borders for tourism.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a veteran journalist at Khaosod English, said the results of Thailand’s general election will be critical to whether Thailand will see political and further economic growth.
“As it is, the government is distracted by the looming election as no major or special economic policy will be introduced in the months ahead. Depending on the outcome of the election, Thailand can expect more political certainty,” he told VOA.
Thailand’s government is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. The next general elections are scheduled for May 7.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said in December that he wanted to rule until 2025, hinting he plans to run in the election. But Prayuth could leave his Palang Pracharath Party, which leads the current ruling coalition government, and join a new party specifically formed for him.
Chan-ocha, 68, seized power in a 2014 military coup when he was commander of the Royal Thai Army. He has become deeply unpopular in recent years over his handling of the pandemic and mismanagement of the economy, surviving several no-confidence votes in the past eight years.
With the main opposition party, Pheu Thai, riding high in the polls, the coming election could mean a change in the government, a Thai analyst said.
“If Pheu Thai wins by a large enough margin, it will be difficult to deny its role in leading the next government,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told VOA.
In recent years, Thai activist groups have regularly taken to the streets, protesting government decisions and demanding that the prime minister quit. Thitinan warned that demonstrations could erupt again if there is evidence of wrongdoing during the elections.
“If the [election] results are overturned, either by manipulating margins or outright dissolution, even another seizure of power, then street protests will likely ensue,” he said.
Thailand’s economy was forecast to grow 3.4% in 2022, which would be a return to pre-pandemic economic levels, the World Bank reported. The economy will continue to increase in 2023, although more slowly than initially anticipated, but still with forecast growth of 3.6%, the World Bank said.
Thitinan said he thought more investment would be needed, as well as a long-term strategy.
“In reality, Thailand’s trend growth and economic trajectory is settling into a 3% plateau for the medium term with downside risks in the absence of major structural reforms of policy regimes dealing with investment, immigration and innovation for new growth areas in the digital era, underpinned by education and skills training that are globally competitive,” he wrote to VOA.
Thailand’s economy relies heavily on tourism, but amid the pandemic-fueled global economic downturn, the kingdom saw a 6% decline in its economy in 2020.
Tourism already contributed to a 2.4% year-over-year rise for Thailand’s economy in the first half of 2022. The country said it welcomed its 10 millionth foreign tourist of the year on December 10.
Thailand also hopes to strengthen foreign investment after having hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok in November.
Pravit said representatives of the 21 Asia-Pacific economies met to discuss trade and economic integration – and gave Thailand some much-needed publicity.
“It sent a message [that] Thailand is ready to welcome more tourists and do more business,” he said.
One of the key meetings Chan-ocha held this year was with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Thailand is hoping Chinese tourists will again flock to its shores. Thai tourism officials are predicting 12 million Chinese visitors this year.
Gary Bowerman, a tourism analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said that achieving those figures would take some time.
“To expect they will get 12 million Chinese tourists next year, when they only had 11 million in 2019, that’s a high figure. I don’t think we can take the China forecast very seriously,” Bowerman told VOA in November.
With tourism almost certain to increase in the new year, questions remain about whether Russian tourists should be allowed to visit Thailand amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Thailand has tried to remain neutral amid the rising tension between Western countries and the Kremlin, even abstaining from a U.N. General Assembly vote in October over Russia’s claims that it had annexed four eastern Ukraine regions.
Mark Cogan, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan, said Thailand is thinking pragmatically.
“Thailand badly needs to resume pre-COVID trade levels and tourism. And they need Russian tourists as well. The noise surrounding the UNGA [U.N. General Assembly] vote may not have won favor in the human rights community, but when Russia is basically the seventh-largest market for tourism, I can see why they [Thailand] are a bit pragmatic,” Cogan told VOA in November.
Local media said Thai officials were predicting that for all of 2022, the number of Russian tourists would reach 1 million.
Source: Voice of America