Thailand began a new era Monday, with the tantalizing prospect of an end to the violent strife that has wracked the country for more than five years, following Yingluck Shinawatra’s overwhelming victory in Sunday’s general election.
Her win was an embarrassing defeat for Thailand’s urban elite and military, widely blamed for last year’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests that left 92 people dead, and a resounding vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Democrat Party over their handling of the economy.
Importantly, though, it was also a win for Yingluck’s older brother Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted from power by the military, and sentenced in absentia to two years imprisonment for corruption. Thaksin is widely expected to receive an amnesty, paving the way home from a life in exile in Dubai.
‘This is a slap in the face to the establishment for what they’ve done since the military coup in 2006,’ says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist with Chulalongkorn University. ‘This is a new Thailand that they must learn to deal with.’
Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party (PTP) secured 262 seats in the 500-seat Parliament. This will be further boosted to 297 seats with Yingluck’s decision to enter a coalition with three minor parties – Chart Thai Pattana with 19 seats, Chart Pattana Puea Paendin with nine, and Palangchon with seven.
The Democrats won 160 seats, while their allies Bhum Jai Thai held 24 seats at the final count.
There were some allegations of vote rigging, an issue that dogs most Thai elections. But Yingluck’s clearly overwhelming mandate rendered such claims meaningless, and will limit any attempted bullying by the military of minor parties – or interference by the electoral commission.
‘The scale of her victory creates a lot of optimism that the forces that have traditionally created instability will have nowhere to go,’ says Keith Loveard, a Jakarta-based regional security analyst with Concord Consulting. ‘Nevertheless, being elected is one thing and governing to satisfy all elements of society is another. It remains to be seen whether Yingluck can succeed in bridging the gap between the urban elites and the majority of the population.’
Abhisit conceded defeat and wished Yingluck the best, while the military has said it will accept the result. Pre-election media reports suggested that preliminary negotiations were already under way for Thaksin's return if he agrees not to become directly involved with the running of government.
The amnesty would also be broadened to include elements of the military involved with last year’s crackdown, and ensure that pro-establishment military chief Prauth Chan-ocha would remain in his position until retirement, due in three years’ time. This could allow reconciliation between Thaksin's Red Shirts, who have been in direct confrontation with the Yellow Shirts of the pro-establishment and self-anointed defenders of the monarchy for much of the last five years.
‘From the point of view of stability, any steps that reduce that gap between urban elites and the majority will be positive. So on balance the outlook is good,’ says Loveard.
Thai stability has been as much an issue abroad as it has been at home. Bangkok is enduring difficult relations with its neighbours, in particular Cambodia, with which border skirmishes have been fought around the 11th century temple ruins of Preah Vihear since mid-2008.
With this in mind, Yingluck’s win was a cause for smiles all around in Phnom Penh, where the Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong said: ‘It’s true, we can’t hide that we are happy with the victory by Pheu Thai Party in Bangkok.’