Last Updated: Friday, 26 December 2014, 13:50 GMT

Analysis: High hopes - and concerns - for Thai elections

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 1 July 2011
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Analysis: High hopes - and concerns - for Thai elections, 1 July 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e204f1d2.html [accessed 26 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

BANGKOK, 1 July 2011 (IRIN) - Thai voters go to the polls this weekend in what many see as a decisive step in the country's road to peace and reconciliation.

"If every party just accepts the outcome of this election, this country can be normal," Kanawat Wasinsungworn, deputy leader of the opposition Pheu Thai Party, who expects to make big gains on 3 July, said.

Kanawat's political opponent, Panitan Wattanayagorn, the acting government spokesman, was similarly bullish: "I believe we will be a normal country again."

But the two men - much like the country - differ greatly on the direction this nation is heading. In fact, Thailand has been suffering from a protracted political crisis for almost five years.

While Thailand's political divisions are often described as "rich versus poor" and "rural versus urban", the divisions are more blurred, say experts.

More than two-thirds of country's 67 million inhabitants live in rural areas, and many of the country's rural and working poor - many of whom migrated to the cities from the countryside - feel neglected.

Pheu Thai, heavily galvanized by that group, now leads in the polls, including Bangkok, the traditional stronghold of their main rivals, the incumbent Democrat Party and current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power in December 2008 following a special parliamentary vote.

Yet despite that, Thailand's future looks far from certain, say voters, analysts, and politicians. After all, what is normal in a country referred to as the world's oldest "fledgling democracy"?

Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has experienced 18 coups or coup attempts. In the same period 17 constitutions and charters have been drafted.

A half-decade of protests

Front and centre to modern Thai politics and the election is the hugely divisive figure of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, recently described by veteran political commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak as "the deposed, fugitive, corrupt former prime minister who is going to win the election in absentia".

Thaksin remains at the centre of political conflict," Buranaj Smutharaks, the Democrat Party spokesperson, said. "We need to move on from Thaksin."

The populist leader, and hero to Thailand's poor and downtrodden, came to power in 2001 and was deposed by the military in September 2006 amid allegations of widespread corruption, nepotism, authoritarianism and human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings.

He now lives in exile, his Thai Rak Thai party dissolved. Upon his departure, his supporters reorganized and joined the People's Power Party, which won by a healthy margin in the 2007 elections.

After resumed protests from his opponents in 2008 - including the weeklong occupation of Bangkok's sprawling international airport - that party was also dissolved, this time on grounds of electoral fraud, prompting the Democrat Party to cobble together a coalition to take control of parliament.

Meanwhile, the grassroots red shirts movement - which for the most part supports Thaksin and includes a large proportion of working-class and rural-based Thais - staged protests in 2009 and again in 2010 against the government, considering it illegitimate.

In April that year, thousands took to the streets, later consolidating their presence within a 3 sqkm area in Bangkok's commercial district. More than 90 died and another 1,000 were injured after the military intervened in May to disband the demonstrators. Dozens of buildings were set ablaze by angry protesters, including the stock exchange, banks and one of Southeast Asia's largest shopping malls.

Thaksin's allies have since regrouped in the form of the Pheu Thai Party, which makes no attempts to distance itself from the former prime minister, with slogans such as "Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai does".

Moreover, his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, a political novice, whom Thaksin has described as his "clone", has been nominated as Pheu Thai's official leader, and will likely be the country's next prime minister if her party wins enough votes to form a government.

What voters think

How this will play out with voters remains to be seen.

"I want Thaksin back," says Jan Wannee, a tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok. "If he does not come back, no problem. But Pheu Thai and Thaksin are the same, better for Thai people and better for the economy."

Supporters of the Democrat Party are also motivated by Thaksin, but their goal is to keep him out of Thai politics.

Despite accusations of elitism levelled at the Democrat Party, Kannikar Apisukpaisarn, a coffee-shop owner in Bangkok, believes Thaksin and Pheu Thai are guiltier of nepotism and cronyism.

"His sister was never interested in politics before. They are a family party," she says, adding that Thaksin had done some good things for the country, "but with his major projects like Suvarnabhumi airport and the healthcare scheme, the contractors are always members of his family".

Meanwhile, many believe the election is really a vote for Thaksin's return.

"This election has become a referendum on whether to bring back Thaksin or not," says the Democrats' Buranaj.

Scepticism

This belief, along with the establishment's entrenched hostility towards the exiled leader, will make for a shaky post-election future for Thailand, and election results are unlikely to be accepted, whichever side wins, analysts say.

Political scientist Sirote Klampaiboon believes that unless Pheu Thai wins close to 251 seats - an outright majority - smaller parties may form a coalition with the Democrats instead.

"If the Democrats form the new government, then the Red Shirt movement will come back and demonstrate again," he predicts. "If that happens, things will be worse than last year."

Chaturon Chaisang, former Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand and current adviser to the Pheu Thai Party, is also sceptical about post-election stability.

"If Pheu Thai gets 245 seats and forms a government, then the elite will intervene. If they get fewer seats [and form the government], the elite will certainly intervene. This government will not be stable. This is bad news, but it is the truth."

But he also holds out some hope: "If the will of the people is accepted, then there is a chance for reconciliation."

Chaturon is all too aware that many people oppose his party, but is adamant that dissent must be expressed through the democratic process. "Protest, go ahead," he told IRIN. "Protest is good. But don't stage a coup."

"No more coups," tuk-tuk driver Jan agreed.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on all parties to refrain from violence before, during and after the elections and to accept and respect the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box.

"He expects the elections will be conducted peacefully and in a fair, credible and transparent manner so as to contribute to reconciliation and the consolidation of democratic norms in the country," according to a statement issued by Ban's spokesperson on 29 June.

ms/ds/mw

Theme (s): Conflict, Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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