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Thailand: No peace through polls

Asia Times - May 27, 2011

Nelson Rand and Chandler Vandergrift, Udon Thani and Bangkok Campaigning has begun in earnest for Thailand's general elections scheduled for July 3. Few observers believe the democratic vote will act to reconcile a prolonged political crisis and rising social divisions.

The polls will be the second since a military coup ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. Thaksin remains a significant and polarizing factor in Thai politics despite living in self-imposed exile since 2008 to avoid a two-year jail sentence for a corruption conviction.

The elections come in the wake of over five years of debilitating instability that has at times devolved into street violence. Armed exchanges between a pro-Thaksin protest group and security forces last year resulted in 91 mostly civilian fatalities. Neither side has accepted responsibility for the death and destruction.

"There is no scenario from this election that will work," said David Streckfuss, an independent academic based in northeast Thailand. "No matter what the result is, Thailand's political crisis will not be over. Round three is coming."

The divisions are most noticeable in the highly fractured, color-coded protest movements and their competing stances on the elections. For Thailand's "red shirts", formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the early elections are long overdue and have been the group's main rally cry since it began street protests in 2009.

Mostly Thaksin supporters, the protest group views the incumbent Democrat Party-led government of interim prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva as illegitimate because it came to power in a parliamentary vote following the dissolution of the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party (PPP)-led administration in December 2008. That vote is widely believed to have been influenced from behind the scenes by the military.

New elections was the group's main demand during last year's prolonged demonstrations, though the group refused to dismantle their protest site in the center of Bangkok after Abhisit offered to hold early polls in November. Many speculated at the time that was because Abhisit's offer did not include an amnesty for Thaksin. Weeks later the military moved to dislodge the protest, resulting in some of the worst political violence in the country's modern history.

"The UDD sees the parliament's dissolution and a general election as the first step towards returning power back to the people," the group said in a statement earlier this month following Abhisit's dissolution of parliament.

Although not a formal political party and indeed the group is just as much a social movement as a political one the UDD is closely aligned with the opposition Puea Thai Party, the successor of the PPP and before that Thaksin's original Thai Rak Party, which was dissolved by a military tribunal following the 2006 coup.

Ten UDD leaders are running in the elections on the Puea Thai ticket, while the party is counting on the UDD network for campaigning and its support base for votes. In the red-shirt stronghold of Udon Thani province in northeast Thailand, UDD leaders and supporters say these elections are still very much about Thaksin.

"We want democracy, justice and for Thaksin to come back," said Kwanchai Praipana, leader of the "We Love Udon" UDD group, which claims to have 400,000 card-carrying members in the province of two million.

"I support Puea Thai because I love Thaksin," said UDD supporter Somkid Thirattana, a retired air force lieutenant. "We want him to come back as quickly as possible to be prime minister... We don't care about the person [the local member of parliament], we vote for the party," he added, referring to Puea Thai.

Thaksin remains a key figure behind this election, even though he has been officially banned from politics and is a fugitive from Thai justice. He is clearly acting from exile as Puea Thai's leader, underscored by the appointment of his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as the party's candidate for prime minister.

While prime minister from 2001 to 2006, Thaksin's pro-poor populist polices won him widespread support among rural Thailand, especially in the north and northeast. That popularity ultimately contributed to his political downfall, as his accumulation of power threatened to tip the balance to the detriment of the royalist establishment.

Enter the other side of Thailand's divide, represented in part by the "yellow shirts", formally known as the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and a newly formed splinter group, the Thai Patriots Network (TPN). The PAD has urged its supporters to boycott the polls and have called for a three to five year interregnum from democracy to "cleanse" Thai politics of corrupt politicians.

"We are against these elections," said an advisor to the TPN speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I still believe in democracy, I believe it's the best system on earth, but we have to press pause, we have to do something to stop the country's problems."

The "yellow shirt" movement is highly fractured, seen in its recent split from Abhisit's previously allied Democrats. That could divide and potentially diminish the anti-Thaksin vote if enough Thais heed the PAD's rally cry to boycott the vote. One of the PAD's controversial slogans is "Don't Let Animals Enter Parliament", in reference to the vote-buying and corruption prevalent in Thai politics.

Recent opinion polls show it will be a close race between the Democrats and Puea Thai, with neither party expected to win an outright majority. Smaller parties will thus play a decisive role in determining which party will form the next government.

A Puea Thai-led government would risk a backlash from the military and royalist establishment, which has consistently tried to undermine Thaksin and some believe has the power to reignite "yellow shirt" protests. A Democrat-led government would risk further UDD protests and potential violence by its militant fringes.

Although UDD leaders say they will accept the election results as long as the polls are free and fair, in all likelihood they will not view them as such if the Democrats win. Moreover, they also say it will be unacceptable if Puea Thai wins the most votes but is not allowed to lead a coalition government.

"If Puea Thai is the top vote-getting party and yet we are not allowed to form the government that outside powers interfere and bring another government to power then we will continue our struggle," UDD co-leader and Puea Thai candidate Natthawut Saikua told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand last month.

"If the elections are just, if the Democrat Party wins the election fair and square, then we will accept that government [as] elected by the people," he added.

Some analysts and activists contend that the elections will not be fully free and fair due to the government's clamp down on freedom of expression, including the recent shuttering of 13 "red shirt"-affiliated radio stations, the jailing of UDD leaders Jatuporn Promphan and Nisit Sinthuprai for making public remarks allegedly offensive to the monarchy and widespread censorship of the Internet.

"The upcoming elections can hardly be credible if the government closes down opposition radio stations and websites," Brad Adams, Asia director at the United States-based Human Rights Watch said in a recent statement. "This government came into office saying it was committed to protecting rights, but it has become the most prolific censor in recent Thai history."

At the same time, UDD supporters been accused of harassing Abhisit on the campaign trail, actions that could result in the Puea Thai's legal disbandment if the Election Commission (EC) finds they are supported by the party. Abhisit slammed the EC earlier this week for failing to take action against the UDD-aligned perpetrators.

With questions already being raised about the electoral playing field, increasingly it seems the poll result will be hotly contested by the losing party.

"We will have problems for many more years," said the TPN advisor. "Violence will likely continue for quite some time until people realize that this is not the way forward for the land of smiles to be the land of blood."

[Nelson Rand is a Bangkok-based journalist with a master's degree in Asia-Pacific policy studies. He can be reached at nelsonrand@hotmail.com. Chandler Vandergrift is a consultant specializing in conflict analysis and management in Southeast Asia and is based in Bangkok. He can be reached at chandlerv@gmail.com.]

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