The Diplomat's Wei Lit speaks with Rosheen Kabraji, Asia Programme Manager at Chatham House, about what elections in Thailand this year could hold.
The last time the ruling Democrats came to power with a popular mandate was in 1992. If previous election results are anything to go by, an electoral victory for the Democrats is perhaps unlikely. Could there be any change of fortunes for the Democrats in this year’s election, in spite of the current divisive climate?
The Democrat party is in a very different situation today than it was in 1992. It’s working within a coalition, and until Prime Minister Abhisit dissolves the lower house of parliament — reportedly likely in early May — and a date for the election is set, recent polling data and analysis suggest the race between the Democrat Party and the Puea Thai party is too close to call. Given that the political climate in which these elections will take place is different to previous ones, the role of small-to-medium sized parties like the Bhum Jai Thai party will be significant if the main parties have to rely on coalition partners to draw in key votes and form a new government.
Broadly speaking, the Thai economy has weathered the political crisis relatively well, with the World Bank revising its forecast for economic growth in 2011 from 3.2 percent to 3.7 percent. The Thai government has also been instituting economic reforms that have been labelled pro-poor populist policies and which are aimed at appealing to a broader rural base that former Prime Minister Thaksin has traditionally drawn much of his support from.
What do you think about the electoral prospects for the New Politics Party (NPP) that was founded by the People’s Alliance for Democracy? Would they divide the support for the Democrat party?
A survey by the Asia Foundation in 2010 found that Thais are not as politically divided along colour lines as widely reported, with 76 percent claiming they had no strong colour attachment. Given the New Politics Party’s ability to contest the elections hasn’t yet been confirmed, the limited colour loyalty would suggest they are unlikely to draw away a large number of votes from the Democrat party’s current strongholds in the south and centre of the country. The PAD’s recent focus on the tensions with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple on the border hasn’t garnered mass popular support they had hoped for, but has revealed their diverging views with the ruling Democrat Party as well as the fragmentation of the ‘yellow-shirt’ coalition.
Addressing the Red Shirt rally in March, Thaksin said that, ‘If you vote (for Puea Thai Party) to win by a landslide, I would come back to solve Thailand's economic problems and make the country boom again within six months.’ Nevertheless, parties that were linked to Thaksin have faced forced dissolution in the past. Would you agree that the association of Puea Thai Party with Thaksin is bound to spell its doom?
Thaksin’s role and association will be divisive if the Puea Thai Party doesn’t win an outright majority and needs to form a coalition. Within the party, there would be individuals loyal to Thaksin and those who wouldn’t want to be associated with the violence last year, even though they may agree in principle with the party’s manifesto.
Although Thaksin remains popular, particularly in his strong-hold of the north-east, questions remain over a leader who would be able to unite all the disparate elements within the Puea Thai Party, the UDD and Red Shirts in the run up to the election and maintain that cohesion afterwards. Thaksin is the de-facto leader of the Puea Thai party, and unless the party wins the election outright it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which he will be able to return to Thailand without resistance from the military, which could lead to further confrontation. It will be important to watch how the military and elite respond to the events that unfold over the next few months.
Organising an election in such a dangerously polarised environment could suggest violent clashes are inevitable. What can the Election Commission, or any other relevant parties, do to ensure the upcoming election is peaceful and seen as legitimate?
The Election Commission will need to facilitate the elections under a tense environment and as such ensuring transparency, accountability and legitimacy for the next government will be crucial. However, given the contentious atmosphere since last year’s protests it would be surprising if there’s no violence, regardless of the outcome, by UDD or PAD supporters. The Election Commission and security forces will be hoping that the clashes don’t escalate into mass violent protests, particularly in Bangkok. Thailand has so far rejected international election monitors, although in the past it has allowed the Asian Network of Free Elections to work in the country. The likelihood of violence would increase if there’s a close election outcome and a doctored result afterwards.
Some believe the February release of the Red Shirt leaders and the early elections are gestures towards national reconciliation by the Democrat government. Should we be optimistic that this election could be a big step towards healing the current political division?
Although the election is a very important step towards national reconciliation, as it would enable all Thais to exercise their opinion through the ballot box, it’s also seen by some as a ‘Red-Shirt’ demand. This is why there have been calls from within the PAD to boycott the election. This has also led to rumours about a coup, which the military has categorically denied, and that article 7 of the Constitution might be invoked, which would allow for a royally-appointed government. Both these post-election scenarios would undoubtedly lead to violent clashes. Whether the Thai nation gets even more polarised will depend greatly on how the election campaigns are conducted and whether the party with the largest majority (if either does indeed get the majority) will be able to form a government that the opposition would accept as legitimate.
Regardless of the outcome, more hard-line factions within the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts are likely to contest the outcome. Additionally, questions remain over the succession of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which adds to the uncertainty. It’s difficult to see how at this stage the election is going heal the deep-rooted grievances on either side as political uncertainty will remain, But it could still enable Thailand’s politics to move forward through the ballot box rather than through violent conflict on the streets.