BANGKOK (AP) -- Thailand's Parliament was dissolved Monday by a government decree, setting the stage for a May general election that poses an opportunity to lessen the military's influence in politics.
The dissolution, just a few days before the end of the four-year term of the House of Representatives, was initiated by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is seeking a fresh mandate in the vote provisionally set for May 7.
The election will pit the popular opposition Pheu Thai party, backed by billionaire populist Thaksin Shinawatra, against parties representing the conservative establishment, closely linked to the military.
Thaksin-led and -backed parties have won the most seats in every election since 2001, but have been blocked from staying in power by military coups, unfavorable rulings by the conservative judiciary and election laws drafted to favor army-backed parties.
The leading Pheu Thai candidate is Thaksin's daughter, 36-year-old Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who is heavily favored in opinion polls.
If elected, she would be the third member of the Shinawatra family to be prime minister in the past two decades. Her father held office in 2001-2006, and Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011-2014. Both of them were toppled by coups.
Dissolving Parliament before the end of its term allows lawmaker candidates to switch party affiliations just 30 days before the election, instead of the 90 days required if Parliament's term had merely expired. This allows candidates to shop around for parties offering them the best support, while parties can beef up their roll of potential winners by recruiting candidates with a proven record of winning votes in their local constituency.
More than 52 million of the country's population of over 66 million are eligible to vote across 400 constituencies. Four hundred seats will be determined by first-past-the-post races in each constituency. A separate party preference ballot will seat the other 100 members of the House of Representatives from national party lists.
Prayuth, who turns 69 on Tuesday, was the sole prime ministerial candidate of Thai politics' conservative wing in the 2019 election. He first assumed the top job after staging a military coup as army commander, ousting Yingluck's elected government in 2014.
He did not run in the 2019 election but was selected prime minister by Parliament after the army-backed Palang Pracharath party formed a coalition government.
This year, however, he faces a challenge from his longtime comrade-in-arms and deputy prime minister, 77-year-old Prawit Wongsuwan, who has been named the new Palang Pracharath candidate for prime minister.
Prayuth joined the recently formed United Thai Nation party in January to become its candidate, even though a court ruled last year that he can serve only two more years in office under the constitution. The party is less experienced, raising the question of whether it can win the minimum 25 seats in the lower house to put forward Prayuth as a prime minister candidate.
Both Prayuth and Prawit have polled poorly.
The Pheu Thai party is set to nominate three candidates for prime minister, but first among equals is Paetongtarn. In a nationwide survey by the National Institute of Development Administration released Sunday, she was favored by just under 50% of 2,000 people polled.
Prawit had indicated he would be amenable to forming a coalition government with Pheu Thai, a position that was virtually unthinkable for a military-linked candidate just a few years ago.
Thailand's 2017 constitution, adopted under military rule, calls for the prime minister to be selected by a joint vote of the 500-member lower house and the 250-seat Senate, whose members were appointed by Prayuth's junta. In practice, the Senate has voted as a conservative bloc, unanimously backing Prayuth in 2019.
A candidate backed by all members of the Senate would need only 126 -- 25% plus one -- members of the lower house to select the next prime minister. A candidate opposed by the Senate would need to win the votes of 376 -- 75% plus one -- house members to prevail.
The stronger runners-up in the 2019 election, whose support allowed Palang Pracharath to form a ruling coalition despite winning slightly fewer seats than frontrunner Pheu Thai, are expected to wield similar leverage this year, especially as new election rules make it harder for small parties to compete.
Chief among these is the well-funded Bhumjaithai party, whose base is in populous Northeast, the region holding the greatest number of lower house seats. Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul, a construction magnate before entering politics, is public health minister in Prayuth's government, giving him a high profile during the coronavirus pandemic.
He and his party are best known for campaigning for and implementing the de facto legalization of marijuana and other cannabis products, a policy that benefits the primarily agricultural Northeast.
Anutin, 56, could become a junior partner in a Pheu Thai government if his party provided it enough seats to give it a majority of the combined upper and lower house vote. If he swings his party's support to the pro-military parties -- especially if they falter at the polls -- he could be positioned to head a conservative coalition government.