Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Thailand Readies for Election

Thais head to the polls Sunday, with Yingluck Shinawatra’s party hoping to secure a clear majority. But would a coup follow a Peua Thai triumph?

By Simon Roughneen for

I’m not sure who to vote for,’ says Nawa Lee, a bus station clerk in the Bang Na district of Bangkok. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of voters remain undecided ahead of parliamentary elections Sunday, according to opinion polls. With 40 parties contesting 500 seats, the raw numbers at least suggest plenty of possible outcomes.

However, in a country where democracy has arguably been on the wane since the army deposed an elected government in September 2006, the main race is between the biggest party in the governing coalition, the Democrats, and Peua Thai, backed by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and supported by the Red Shirt movement that set up camp in central Bangkok for two months just over a year ago. Protests then, marked by on-off violence, left 91 people dead.

Democrat leader and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Thursday that he’s confident that his party can win enough seats to form a government, though opinion polls put his party well behind Puea Thai, which is hoping to win enough seats to govern alone. With voting closing at the unusually early hour of 3 pm on Sunday, results should be known by around 10 pm. If neither Puea Thai nor the Democrats win a sufficient majority to govern alone, as seems the most likely outcome, parties will get down to negotiating coalition deals. Still, the horse-trading and money-talking has almost certainly already started.

The other parties running won’t win anywhere near as many seats as either Peua Thai or the Democrats, but they could have a say in who takes office, depending on the results. On the streets of Bangkok, some of the smaller parties are throwing up some eye-catching images and thought-provoking slogans to try draw attention away from the ‘Big Two.’ With voting compulsory, the Yellow Shirts, whose 2006 and 2008 protests helped push Thaksin and his allies from office, are calling on Thais to ‘Vote No,’ that is, to spoil their vote. Depicting politicians as animals on their billboards, the group is campaigning to have Thailand governed by an appointed administration for the next five years, their own solution to the country's last five years of periodic protests and violence.

The perhaps-misnamed People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), as the Yellow Shirts call themselves, are not the only competitor with dubious democratic credentials. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the army general who led the 2006 coup, is pitching to ethnic Malays Muslims in the deep south of Thailand, traditionally a pro-Democrat region, where his Matabhum or Motherland party might capitalise on local anger at both the Big Two for their failure to bring peace to an insurgency-wracked region.

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Chuwit Kamolvisit, a former brothel owner and born-again Christian, is running on an anti-graft ticket, telling all about the hefty kickbacks he once paid to police to keep his massage empire running. Though his Rak Prathet Thai (Love Thailand) Party has little chance of winning any more than a handful of seats, he’s pledging to be a backbench voice against corruption if elected. With his sweat-laced glare appearing on posters all over the capital, the gangster-chic, lovable-rogue spin is catching on, with his party running 3rd or 4th in some Bangkok area opinion polls. Nawa Lee says that she originally planned to vote for Peua Thai, but is now ‘thinking maybe for Khun Chuwit.’

The Bhumjaithai (BJT/Pride of Thailand) is perhaps the most likely of the smaller parties to have a say in who governs next. Led by Newin Chidchob, a former Thaksin ally who switched sides in late 2008, giving Abhisit and the Democrats the parliamentary headcount needed to form a government, he competes for votes around Buriram in the Peau Thai/Red Shirt heartland. Another potential coalition partner for either of the Big Two is the Thai National Development Party, popular in the central region just north of Bangkok, and thought more likely to lean towards Peua Thai, which has dismissed the idea of a revived partnership with BJT.

The Democrats and Peua Thai have run with similar sounding big talk about even bigger spending on social and education projects, as well as grandiose infrastructure projects. It’s all reminiscent of the outlays utilised by Thaksin Shinawatra to win elections in the 2001 and 2005, and perhaps an unwitting hat tip to the quasi-revolutionary impact the exiled former telecommunication entrepreneur-turned-vote-machine had on Thai politics, winning big in the populous and less-affluent north and north-east.

However, Thaksin's sometimes heavy-handed governing style and prickly attitude towards criticism wasn’t to everyone's liking. And while Thailand’s long-standing socio-economic inequalities needed addressing, Thaksin's economic legacy isn’t seen as positive by everyone. Prao Pan, an economics student from Nakhon Sawan, says that Thaksinomics ‘are not sustainable,’ adding that ‘you can’t run a country the same as you manage a business.’

Despite being absent from Thailand for over three years, Thaksin looms large over the election. His youngest sister Yingluck is the photogenic Peau Thai campaign figurehead, and despite being a political novice, has seemingly impressed Thai voters with her cautious and non-confrontational rhetoric. She would become Thailand's first woman prime minister if elected. However, the Democrats are trying to pigeonhole Yingluck as a mere mouthpiece for her brother. Given that one of the Peua Thai campaign slogans is ‘Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai does,’ they might have a point.

The Democrats have reminded voters that Thaksin is on the run after fleeing a two year prison sentence for abuse of power while in office, hoping that swing voters might be swayed their way by evoking memories of last year's violence and arson in Bangkok, which they have tried to pin on Thaksin, and by the prospect of an amnesty for Thaksin should Peua Thai win.

However, in a controversial rally held at the same high-rise shopping mall intersection where the Thai Army violently dispersed the Red Shirt protest rally on May 19 last year, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban sought to distance the government and the army from the killings during the 2010 Red Shirt protests. In contrast, eyewitness accounts and human rights groups say that the army fired on civilian protestors, contravening Thai and international law.

On Thursday, Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha issued his latest denial that the military would launch a coup in the event of post-election violence or a Peua Thai win. However, in a country that has seen 18 coups or coup attempts since absolute monarchy was ditched in favour of a constitutional format in 1932, it might seem to many that the general doth protest too much. He appeared twice on Thai TV recently, asking voters to vote for ‘good people’ and vowing to protect the monarchy, perhaps undermining his claim that the military doesn’t intervene in politics. In Thailand's smoke-and-mirrors political discourse, euphemism and allusion take precedence over straight talk, and the general's exhortation was likely code for ‘anyone but Peua Thai.’

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And if the army looms in the background, Thailand's 'institution' – the monarchy in other words – looms large over the army and politics in general, and there have been a number of high-profile lèse majesté arrests in recent years, with some cases bordering on the absurd. However some Thais, not only the army chief, remain supportive of the ‘institution.’

‘The reds say bad against the King,’ says 28-year-old Withun, who declined to give his full name. ‘That is why I will vote for Abhisit.’ Concerns among some Thai lawmakers and army officers that Thaksin's popularity in some regions and sectors of Thai society posed a threat to the monarchy was likely a factor behind the 2006 coup, and could be resurrected if Peua Thai wins and Thaksin attempts to come home.

Given Thailand's recent history, predictions of post-election violence, protests and coups are unsurprising, not least given that the octogenarian King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has been in hospital since September 2009, prompting speculation that a succession crisis looms. But talk of a behind-the-scenes face-saving deal negotiated between Thaksin, the monarchy and the Democrats has come out in recent days, summed up in a June 29 article by Shawn Crispin in Asia Times Online. If the deal is real, and all parties honour it, it could bring about a hiatus to Thailand's cycle of coups and protests. 

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, South China Morning Post, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, Sunday Business Post and others.