Thailand Gives an Election but Lots Can’t Come

There was one possible piece of good news Sunday for Thailand’s besieged 46-year-old Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra: the Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha and other top military brass voted (in civvies), though no one, of course, knew for whom, given that the opposition Yellow Shirts were boycotting the vote.

Still, it was good the men at arms bothered to vote at all, because it may have signaled they weren’t planning a coup. If they hadn’t, it would have been more or less assumed they were against the electoral process altogether and might indeed be planning yet another overthrow, which has plagued the country at least 18 times, successfully or unsuccessfully. You could read it either way.

In all, the questions over the military’s intentions – apparently benign for now – were emblematic of the inconclusive nature of Sunday’s snap election, called by Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party as a stratagem to blunt the unrelenting attacks from the rabble-rousing protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban and his Bangkok-based followers.

SEE RELATED STORY: Thailand at Stalement

There was a sort of surreal quality to Sunday’s events, with the educated elites, led by Suthep and the opposition People’s Democratic Reform Committee – note the ironic use of the word “democratic” in the name – doing everything they could to stop what most people have fought for around the world. Even the Burmese, so new to a kind of democracy, have been expressing concern about trends in Thailand away from the democracy that so many people in Asia, from the Chinese to the Tibetans to the Laotians to the Cambodians to the Vietnamese to the North Koreans, are thought to yearn for.

It was good news that there were no reports of violence despite the fact that six people had been injured, one seriously, in a shoot-out between the pro-government Red Shirts and the anti-government Yellow Shirts previously.

But beyond that, as one aggrieved Thai woman who had been unable to vote at the city’s Ekkamai Temple said: “Bangkok is kaput. What about our right to democracy?”

Whatever was happening in the political circles, many anti-government supporters made the day a respite for shopping in Bangkok’s plush, pricey malls instead of bothering to exercise their right to vote.

Those who did seek to exercise that right were often disappointed, what with some polling stations blockaded, or others without election personnel on duty, or at least too few to assist everyone to vote.

“What is happening in Thailand now is making us a country without a future,” said a businessman who gave his name as "Matthew," aged 48, who had failed to vote behind the Ekkamai temple because of a shortage of personnel – three instead of the nine needed for the smooth running of the station. He and his glamorous wife went off to a nearby police station to register their inability to vote.

“We are afraid to lose our right to vote altogether,” said the wife, who – like everyone interviewed yesterday – refused to give her full name, because they said they feared repercussions.

At another polling station at Sukhumvit Soi (Street) 49 opposite the Fuji supermarket all the polling officials seemed to have fled.

“They may be scared to death,” said a woman who arrived with her daughter on the pillion of her motorcycle – the daughter had hoped to vote for the first time. They put away their national identity cards and went home disenfranchised.

Yingluck’s likely win (though no results have been issued yet, nor will be for some time) in north and northeast Thailand was via a much reduced margin compared with her victory in 2011. Thailand has almost 49 million eligible voters, but estimates of 20 percent to 30 percent voting is much lower than in previous elections.

Pheu Thai has almost certainly "won" the election, at least in north Thailand and in Isaan, the area along the northeast that borders on Laos where no opposition figures bothered to show up, but no results have been issued so far because the election may be rated as void.

“Perhaps results won’t be forthcoming at all, because there is a big chance the election will be nullified,” said one longtime observer. “Nothing has been settled overall,” noted another analyst, surveying the post-election landscape Monday.

It was typical that the two leading English language newspapers, the Bangkok Post and the Bangkok Nation- both of which, like the protesters, are anti-government – each used the word "doubt" on their headlines Monday, in the Post "Poll Fate mired in doubt," and The Nation, "Doubt over Poll Outcome."

For journalists covering the vote, most of whom had been issued with electric green armbands reading "correspondent" that provided admittance to polling stations, some felt less at ease than they might have done. That was because the Yellow Shirts involved in the shoot-in last Saturday, against pro-government Red Shirts, were themselves wearing remarkably similar electric green armbands in a bright electric green color just like the one for reporters and photographers.

Color coding is the bane of one’s existence in Thailand these days. Just to make confusion complete, on Chinese New Year’s Day at the weekend, the Yellow Shirts were all wearing red shirts for their "friendly" Shutdown march through Bangkok’s Chinatown – the Chinese consider the color red lucky and had laid out trays of whole suckling pigs.

Even some Red Shirts were wearing white shirts also quite recently.

And yet there were pluses in the election, in the run-up to which during the past couple of months had seen 10 fatalities. There was little or no violence despite the overcharged rhetoric on both sides. We know, from massacres in 1973, 1976 and 1992, that bloody outcomes were sometimes on the menu in a country that often used to be called The Land of Smiles.

Officials said that 89 percent of polling stations operated normally Sunday, though 8-10 million voters were unable to cast ballots, according to the official Election Commission (EC). The EC said in an announcement of election results had been postponed because of problems including the anti-government ‘mob’ blocking of advance voting, and the failure to hold voting in numbers of seats. “Today we cannot announce the overall results of the election,” EC chairman Supachai Somcharoen announced.

He said that poll results would be officially announced after advance and overseas votes are combined. But he added that, even though Sunday’s election went smoothly for the most part, political conflict and unrest could continue.

Pheu Thai was widely expected to win because of the opposition Democrat party’s boycott but also because of the populist measures taken by Yingluck’s ousted elder brother, a telecommunications billionaire who was once a police colonel, but legal challenges and a lack of a quorum of MPs may create a political vacuum, some diplomats say. Still, her support in the north and north east has diminished no doubt because of the the government’s rice initiative to provide higher prices of rice for farmers has in the past three months turned sour, because of delayed payments for pledged rice.

Numbers of farmers have said if they are not paid then they will not vote for Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party. This maybe account for the lower poll turnout in the normally pro-Shinawatra part of the country.

Overall, the election was being called "shambolic." Thailand was seen as being in limbo, at a time when limbo as a supposed place were unbaptized babies were said to be placed was no longer church doctrine. Suthep said the inability of the Yingluck government to declare a result because of closures - closed by his PDRC party itself - therefore the election ‘is a waste of time and money.’

Suthep and his supporters, who dominate downtown Bangkok, said they would hold an election eventually but in the meantime wanted a council of experts which would rule Thailand and "reform" it for at least 14 months when new elections would be held. It all smacks rather of fascism.