There are few places in the world where, when an election has been called, there remains a significant chance that it may not take place. Thailand is one of them. A general election has been scheduled for 3 July 2011, but there is a palpable air of nervousness that it may be overtaken by events (read: military coup).
Even if a military coup is not mounted before 3 July, it may still happen after it. Much depends on what the votes reveal.
On 23 June 2011 [date error now corrected], ten days before polling day, the ruling Democrat Party (the party listed as number 10 on the ballot paper) chose to hold a rally at the Ratchaprasong junction, the very site where the Red Shirts fought a pitched battle with the army barely 13 months earlier. In the ten-week siege leading up to and including the days of fighting, 92 people lost their lives. It was a highly provocative choice of location by the party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and rumours flew around the capital that bombs might be thrown into the crowd. This would be reason enough for the army to move in to “restore order”.
Here are some pictures of the rally:
Volunteers from Election Watch were also there canvassing for support:
Fortunately, the rally went off without incident, but if bombs had gone off, it would most likely not be the work of the Red Shirts or the party they support, Pheu Thai (listed as party #1 on the ballot paper). It would more likely be the work of the army itself or the Yellow Shirts.
Why? Because almost all opinion polls are indicating that the Pheu Thai is likely to get the largest number of seats in the new parliament, albeit short of an outright majority, an outcome that the army and the Yellow Shirts strongly dislike. Pheu Thai’s interest would be best served by having the election go ahead, even though they are the Democrat Party’s opponents, so they would not want to give the army any excuse to move in.
Pheu Thai is the successor party of Thai Rak Thai, the party founded by Thaksin Shinawatra and which brought him to power in 2001. He was deposed by a military coup in September 2006 and has been in self-imposed exile since. However, he still controls Pheu Thai and has installed his sister Yingluck Shinawatra (her face on the poster above) as its leader for these elections. She will be prime minister if Pheu Thai wins.
On gross measures, e.g. Gross Domestic Product growth, the Democrat Party has managed the economy relatively well in the last two years, but look more closely, and people have plenty of complaints. For example there was a shortage of cooking oil some months ago; prices are rising, eggs in Thailand cost more than in the United States, probably because the CP group reportedly controls 80 percent of the supply in the country — a sign of the entrenched favours enjoyed by well-connected groups, grumble the Red Shirts.
These and other daily hurdles and humiliations may explain why the ruling Democrat Party continues to struggle in the polls. Increasingly desperate as polling day nears, it has begun to promise any number of populist measures, including raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing income support for farmers, in a bid to pull support from the rural and working class demographic segments that form Pheu Thai’s support base. Yet the Democrat Party is still stuck with a significant gap behind Pheu Thai. In Bangkok alone, latest polls show the Democrat Party 8 to 19 percentage-points behind Pheu Thai, despite former being the favourite of the elite, who are concentrated in the capital.
People vote for emotional reasons, and the key thing in many people’s minds is that the Democrat Party represents the arrogance and self-interest of the social and commercial elite, backed by the military and the palace. The same people feel that Abhisit would not be in power if not for the 2006 coup and the anti-democratic disqualifications that eliminated Thai Rak Thai. Whatever the Democrat Party may promise in their manifesto, the groundswell of resentment is proving very difficult to roll back.
Here are the latest poll projections published in the Nation newspaper (23 June 2011):
Yet, Thaksin and the other leaders of Pheu Thai are no saints either. Moreover, with about 40 parties contesting for the 375 constituency seats and 125 proportional representation seats (called ‘party list’ seats here in Thailand), it is unlikely that Pheu Thai will get an outright majority.
Some of the minor parties may secure small blocks of seats in the new parliament, thus holding the balance of power. Names to watch out for include Chart Thai Pattana (party #21) and Bhumjaithai (#16).
With this many parties, all the major streets of Bangkok are chock-a-block with election posters.
Among the more eye-catching posters are those of the party led by Chuvit Kamolvisit (party #5) which has put corruption eradication at the top of its priorities. Chuvit himself made his millions through his soapy bath massage parlours, but in the course of which he had to deal with corrupt officials all the time. He’s become so fed up he is now positioning himself as an anti-corruption fighter. Don’t laugh, about four percent of Bangkokians will be voting for his party, according to surveys.
To complicate matters, the New Politics Party has put up posters urging voters to vote “No”. Thai ballot papers provide a No option after listing all the parties/candidates, allowing voters to make a legitimate abstention.
Here are some posters urging a “No” vote. Even if you can’t read Thai, you will quickly surmise that what they are trying to say is that all politicians are monkeys and hungry beasts. The message in the poster at right is that even if you manage to escape from a tiger, you’ll only run into a crocodile. So throw the whole lot out!
Although the media, including the internet and community radio (some very partisan), is full of election talk, all this cacophony is taking place under the shadow of veiled military threats. About two weeks ago, the army chief, General Prayuth Chan-o-cha appeared on two army-run television channels, saying, “If you allow a repeat of the same election pattern, then we will always get the same result,” referring to the way voters have consistently given Thaksin’s previous parties Thai Rak Thai and People Power Party victories in the 2001, 2005 and 2006 elections.
“I want you to use sound and reasonable judgement to make our country and our monarchy safe and have good people running our nation,” the general added, using coded language endorsing the Democrat Party. Such remarks naturally raise the question how the army would react if voters did not do as told.
Another looming shadow takes the form of lese majeste prosecutions. There are now about 400 pending cases, according to newspaper reports. ‘Lese majeste’ is an ill-defined term that covers any criticism that lowers the esteem of the monarchy. Truthfulness is no defence; you just cannot say anything negative about the royal family, and as some cases indicate, it even covers advisers to the royal family.
The problem is that the royal family and its privy councillors interfere in politics, often via the army. Yet, political discourse is not allowed to speak negatively of the actions of the royal family, which disputation of their political role necessarily involves.
If the country is tense now, it will likely be worse after polling day. If Pheu Thai wins more than 250 seats in the 500-seat parliament, will the army and palace allow Yingluck and her colleagues to take office? Would not the rabidly pro-monarchy Yellow Shirts take to the streets again? If Pheu Thai is barred from taking office, would that not amount to another coup? In that case, the Red Shirts would mobilise and the country may be plunged into civil war.
Likewise, in the likely scenario that Pheu Thai falls short of an outright majority, but manages to form a coalition with a few smaller parties (no doubt after keeping the country on knife-edge for weeks through the haggling), will the army and palace tolerate it?
The Democrat Party may try its luck too to form a coalition government with minor parties even if it wins fewer seats than Pheu Thai, and it is quite possible that the army and palace will twist the arms of the minor parties to join with the Democrat Party than with Pheu Thai. But will the Red Shirts tolerate another “stolen election”?
Political watchers do not see this election as resolving any issues, in fact it has the potential of worsening it. The crisis in Thailand is deeply rooted in class conflict, with the political awakening of the common people posing a severe challenge to the privileged class’ presumption that their interests should always prevail.
Elections, fairly conducted, ought to be able to create opportunities for resolution, but not when the incumbent powers are not prepared to recognise an adverse result or yield to democratic will. Instead, all that the ruling elite want is the legitimacy that elections confer to their continued control of the country, and going by the track record, they will resort to any number of machinations and threats to get it.