Four days out from Thailand’s national election, the streets of Bangkok are covered with campaign posters. From nearly every lamppost in the city centre, the colourful images of would-be politicians jostle for attention, flashing peace signs and cuddling babies. The field runs to more than 40 parties, including not a few dark horses: former sex industry kingpin and political clown Chuwit Kamolvisit is running for prime minister as a self-styled graft buster; General Sonthi Boonyaratakalin, the leader of the 2006 military coup, has decided to give democracy another go, heading the small Matabhum (Motherland) Party.
The theatrics conceal the fact that this Sunday’s election will be one of Thailand’s most divisive in decades. Analysts say the elections could usher in national reconciliation — or accelerate a political meltdown like the one that last year led to the deaths of 91 people in anti-government protests in the streets of Bangkok. Last weekend, 35,000 policemen were deployed at 557 polling stations nationwide as advance voting got underway.
The election pits the incumbent Democrat Party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva against the opposition Peua Thai party, the latest incarnation of the party led by fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. The Democrats — considered strong in Bangkok and in the country’s south — have not won a general election in two decades and only came to power in a parliamentary vote in 2008 after the previous ruling party, another of Thaksin’s proxies, was dissolved by the courts.
Before the 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin — for allegedly abusing his office and insulting Thailand’s revered king — the billionaire telecommunications mogul won the hearts of Thailand’s rural underclass by introducing a raft of new social welfare policies. In the process, he also won many enemies among the urban middle class and Bangkok elites, who saw him as a threat to their own long-held privileges.
The tenor of the campaign is unabashedly populist. Both parties are offering a laundry list of promises from free tablet PCs to wage hikes, but the poll looks a lot like another referendum on Thaksin and his divisive legacy. As its candidate for prime minister, Peua Thai has chosen Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, a 44-year-old businesswoman with little experience in politics who Thaksin has described as his "clone". The slogan of the party, controlled by Thaksin from his self-imposed exile in Dubai, is equally unambiguous: "Thaksin Thinks. Peua Thai Acts."
For their part, the Democrats and its coalition partners have blamed Thaksin and his supporters in the red-shirted United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship for last year’s violence. They are asking voters whether they want the return of such a controversial figure.
"Thai society has never been more divided," Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), tells New Matilda. "This election will split Thai opinions in two ways, one that supports the shift of the political status quo and another the maintaining of the old power."
Four days out from the election, polls show Peua Thai holding a lead over the Democrats, and analysts say the choice of Yingluck has been a stroke of cunning. The woman who could become Thailand’s first female leader strikes a more dignified figure than the Oxford-educated Abhisit, whose salt-of-the-earth campaign image seems an uneasy fit.
Yingluck’s campaign stump speech also makes no bones about the basis of her appeal. "If you love my brother," she has asked crowds of supporters across the country, "will you give his youngest sister a chance?"
"Thaksin has picked the perfect choice," said Pavin. "The campaign of Yingluck has been successful so far both because of Thaksin’s political legacy and her own personal style." With a mix of "new qualities" — not least her lack of experience and her gender — Thaksin’s sister has electrified audiences from the restive Muslim south to Thaksin’s heartland in the northeast.
Even so, there is little likelihood of a happy ending for Thailand after the election, given the deep socioeconomic divide underpinning the country’s recent turmoil. In one view, the Thai political conflict pits an entrenched army-backed elite establishment that backs the monarchy against Thailand’s rural poor, many of whom feel marginalised and downtrodden.
"I think there is a lot of rhetoric about national reconciliation, but I am not totally convinced that the situation after the election will be reconciliatory," said Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, Southeast Asia analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Of the two conceivable outcomes to the poll, neither are likely to promote unity. If Peua Thai wins an outright majority of the vote — at least 250 seats in Thailand’s 500 seat parliament — and forms a government, it could provoke a reaction from enemies of Thaksin who are close to the military and the palace. Yingluck has hinted she will offer an amnesty to her brother if she becomes PM, and many observers think she may launch enquiries into last year’s bloody crackdown, for which no one has so far been held responsible.
Rungrawee said any amnesty for Thaksin would be opposed by the Thai military and would likely provoke another round of street protests by the ultra-nationalist People’s Alliance for Democracy, aka the Yellow Shirts, who shut down Bangkok’s airports in 2008 in protest against the Thaksin-lite administration of Somchai Wongsawat. In a country that has seen 18 attempted coups — 11 successful — since 1932, the prospect of another military intervention to shape the political landscape can never be discounted. "All options are possible," said Pavin of ISEAS.
The other outcome — a Democrat coalition government formed with the support of small parties — could also provoke counter protests from the Thaksin-aligned Red Shirts. While such political horsetrading is legal, the Red Shirts could see it as another attempt to steal votes from Peua Thai after the removal of two Thaksin-aligned governments by military of judicial means. "Any interference from the traditional elites in the forming of the government would be a pretext for a new round of mass protests that could turn even more violent," said Rungrawee.
Is there a way out for Thailand? With Thaksin’s legacy again at the centre of proceedings, the stage is set for a new round of upheaval. The real question, Rungrawee tells New Matilda, is whether the opposing camps can avoid a fresh outbreak of violence like last year’s combustive street protests. Unfortunately for Thais, it’s a question that’s unlikely to be answered through the ballot box alone.
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