Counting the ballots
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has resigned after an extraordinary snap election that saw 40 per cent of voters formally abstain in protest against his rule.
As anticipated, Thaksin’s ruling Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party claimed victory in the election, which was a one-horse race boycotted by all major opposition Parties. But in a surprise development, a majority of Bangkok voters formally abstained from voting in what was effectively a referendum on Thaksin’s rule delivering a stinging slap in the face to the embattled caretaker PM, who is accused by his critics of corruption.
Thai Rak Thai (which means ‘Thais Love Thais’) did win all 36 seats in Bangkok, but in 28 of those, TRT votes were outnumbered by abstentions, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the results. Overall, the Thai Election Commission said that 50.1 per cent of Bangkok ballots were abstentions while 45.9 per cent went to TRT candidates.
After initially appearing defiant and rejecting calls for his resignation, Thaksin appeared on national television on Tuesday night to announce he would not lead the next Government.
There was a less surprising anti-Thaksin result in troubled Democrat Party strongholds in the south. Unopposed candidates require at least 20 per cent of the vote to be elected, and incomplete returns indicated there were at least 38 seats in the south where no candidate was returned. Thailand now faces at least 38 by-elections before Parliament can be filled. Without a quorum of 500 MPs, the Thai Parliament can’t form a Government to elect a new Prime Minister.
While Thaksin’s resignation has helped defuse tensions in the capital, the constitutional problems thrown up by the election have set the stage for continuing uncertainty.
Thai media reported that Thaksin was rattled by the early results, cancelling a planned press conference on Sunday night. But appearing on national television on Monday night, Thaksin remained defiant. He said TRT had won an overall majority of votes, freeing him from an election promise to resign if he received less than half the votes cast. He challenged his critics to give him a reason why he should step aside, although he did not completely rule it out. In an attempt to heal tensions, he proposed an independent commission for reconciliation of the divided nation, but this was given short shrift by opposition Parties who distrust Thaksin’s notion of ‘independent’ bodies.
Then, after a meeting with King Bhumibol Adelyadej late Tuesday afternoon in Hua Hin in central Thailand, Thaksin announced his surprise resignation. He cited the need for national reconciliation before the revered King’s 60th anniversary on the throne in June.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra
Thaksin’s TRT easily won the largely uncontested election, securing over half the Party-list vote. But Thaksin by no means secured the overwhelming mandate he needed to marginalise his opponents. At the time of going to press, TRT had claimed 349 seats (a decline from 377 last election, but still a healthy majority). Official results were not yet available. But the strong protest vote exposed crucial gaps in Thaksin’s power base, and left Thailand with the unprecedented situation of an inquorate parliament. Thaksin will remain caretaker Prime Minister until the full parliament is able to convene. That date is yet to be determined. He also vowed to remain on as an MP and TRT Party leader.
Thaksin dissolved Parliament and called the snap election in late February as mass protests escalated against him in Bangkok. It was a gamble on his rural majority support base, designed to shore up his mandate.
As Prime Minister since 2001, he has enjoyed enormous support in the rural north and northeast, where he has effectively instituted universal healthcare and cheap credit systems. But to his detractors in the urban middle classes and the Muslim-dominated south, Thaksin is an autocratic populist with a dubious human rights record who has corrupted many of Thailand’s supposedly democratic institutions.
There is also a long history of legal and ethical questions around Thaksin’s business dealings. He has been very heavy-handed in silencing his critics in the media, much of which like Berlusconi in Italy he controls. (His rural support base hears little or nothing of the corruption allegations or protests.)
But it was the January sale of his family-owned telco Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings that really galvanised his opponents. Thaksin’s family made US$1.9 billion on the deal, after the timely passing of a law increasing foreign ownership restrictions to 49 per cent. To add insult, Thaksin’s family (legally) paid not a cent of capital gains tax on the sale.
A loose alliance of opposition groups, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), led by two former Thaksin supporters (media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul and Buddhist leader Chamlong Srimuang) began mass protests that have disrupted central Bangkok ever since. The protests attracted up to 100,000 people onto the streets at their pre-election peak.
Riots in the week leading up to the election
According to the Bangkok Post, Thaksin promised during his resignation appearance to explain the corruption and abuse of power controversies ‘if he gets the chance.’
After initially promising to end protests if Thaksin stepped down, PAD leaders reacted to Thaksin’s announcement with caution, warning that protests may still take place if the Government continued trying to intimidate the media or if Thaksin did not bow out as promised at the end of the caretaker period. ‘I’m still worried,’ Sondhi told Thai reporters. ‘The Party is the same. They’ll still meet at [his]home and it’s not different from Thaksin still being the Prime Minister.’
Thaksin had been confident TRT would win the snap election, but he was wrong-footed by the unexpected opposition boycott. In a potentially awkward precedent, the major pro-democracy opposition Parties refused to take part in a democratic election, surrendering 119 parliamentary seats in the process. They argue an election is not an appropriate answer to a populist leader’s endemic corruption, graft and abuse of power.
Thaksin, on the other hand, sees democracy as ending at the ballot box once he’s got the democratic mandate, he can run the country as he sees fit. The two camps have been bitterly opposed, polarising the country and leading to concerns about violent confrontation.
Thailand ‘s 74-year-old constitutional monarchy has a busy history of military coups, but this time the military have been studiously neutral, publicly pointing out how peaceful the anti-Thaksin protests have been. As has often happened in Thai politics, the crucial stabilising influence is the King.
Highly revered by the people, the King Bhumibol rarely intervenes publicly in partisan politics. The last time he did was in 1992 to resolve the crisis when the military killed dozens of pro-democracy protesters. Until Tuesday, there had been no indication that the King would step in, with most analysts speculating that the situation in the polarised nation would have to escalate considerably for that to happen.
But amid rumours of military intervention, Thaksin who had previously said he would go at a ‘whisper’ from the King went to a private audience with him on Tu
esday afternoon. The meeting triggered Thaksin’s change of heart.
It’s very unclear at this stage what will happen next. Thai media is rife with speculation over which of Thaksin’s senior colleagues will be appointed as the new leader, with former Parliament President Bhokin Bhalakula and Commerce Minister Somkid Jatusripitak the frontrunners.
Meanwhile, key PAD leaders filed the first of what are expected to be many legal challenges at the Central Administrative Court. They claim the election was unconstitutional and should be annulled. They will pursue this claim despite Thaksin’s resignation. But in Thailand, by-elections can only run with the candidates from the original election, so the position of the opposition ex-MPs who forfeited their seats with the boycott is no clearer.
The political mess has impacted on Thailand’s economy, which has maintained a steady growth rate under Thaksin. Talks on free trade agreements with Japan and the US have been suspended. Yet the Thai stock market indicators were up after late buying on Monday night, reflecting hopes for a compromise between Thaksin and his opponents, according to market analysts. His resignation should steady the market.
But even with Thaksin’s resignation, the snap election, intended to resolve the crisis, has instead thrust Thailand deeper into a constitutional mess. By-elections will continue all month, and Senate elections are already set down for April 19. It is not clear yet when it will be possible for a new Prime Minister to be elected. Thaksin will remain a crucial player in Thai politics for some time yet.
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