Thailand Lurches Towards an Election

It is beginning to appear that fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s gamble to install his sister Yingluck as the head of Thailand’s surrogate Pheu Thai party with the election slogan “"Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts," is starting to pay off.

The latest polls show that Pheu Thai – literally “For Thais” – is opening a narrow lead over the Democrat Party headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, in nationwide elections scheduled for July 3. While Thailand’s polls are considered to be somewhat unreliable, the National Institute of Development Administration, in a June 9 poll made public by the government’s National News Bureau, reported that Pheu Thai was supported by 25.4 percent of the 1,234 respondents from across the country, while the Democrats drew only 18.3 percent approval.

The undecided vote is obviously a wild card and none of the major parties is likely to win an outright majority, with a plethora of minor parties looking to profit from horse trading. At that, the respondents appeared to be holding their noses, with 38.09 percent believing politicians would benefit the most from government policies under a new government, followed by the people at only 26.18 percent.

Most observers paint a grim post-election scenario no matter which way it goes, with the distinct possibility of violence in a society that has seen plenty of it since the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin. The northeast of the country, called Isaan, remains solidly behind the former premier according to the polls, which show Pheu Thai pulling 63.9 percent approval to only 20.7 percent for the Democrats. The Democrats appear equally strong in the south, an indication of the lack of direction with three weeks to go before the election. Bangkok appears more aligned with Pheu Thai.

Much of the attention is focusing in the Bhum Jai Thai Party, headed by Newin Chidchob, a former Thai Rak Thai minister who swung the political leadership to the Democrats in 2008 and cleared the way for Abhisit to become prime minister. Although Bhum Jai Thai controls only 23 of the 480 seats in the National parliament, it is reasonable to assume that Newin, whose loyalty is largely to Newin, will once again seek to be a power broker. He has been described as an opportunist who has maneuvered his Buriram Province-based party into a position of influence largely through vote-buying and corruption.

Both Pheu Thai and Bhum Jai Thai have publicly ruled out any possibility of a coalition although Newin’s second in command, Sophon Zarum told the Bangkok Post earlier that the party’s main goal is to be in the government, no matter which side wins. If Pheu Thai is close to forming a government, it is probable that Newin – named for the late Burmese dictator Ne Win – will seek to do a deal and the Thaksin-backed forces are likely to agree to it.

The bigger questions revolve around what the generals will do. Most observers believe that they will not countenance a Thaksin return under any circumstances, in large part because they feel he will attempt to jail them. In 2008, the military brought down the original Thai Rak Thai government headed by Thaksin and is said to have been behind the 2008 decision on the part of the courts to dissolve its successor, PPP. Anuphong Poachinda, then the army commander, reportedly pressured many of the PPP members of parliament to defect to the Democrats, along with Newin’s splinter party, and pave the way for Abhisit’s election as premier.

Certainly a Thaksin-engineered purge of the generals would be in the offing despite the amnesty that the military granted itself in the wake of the 2006 coup. Probably at the top of Thaksin’s list is Prayuth Chan-ocha, a tough-talking officer who helped to orchestrate the coup that toppled the former prime minister and who was later promoted to head the armed forces.

Yingluck herself has said she would grant amnesty to everybody including her brother and to allow his return from exile, to which he fled in the wake of a court decision that pronounced him guilty of corruption in the sale of his telecommunications empire to Temasek Holdings of Singapore. The government later seized US$2 billion of Thaksin’s fortune. She has also said she would grant amnesty to the generals who perpetrated the 2006 coup and the events that ensued. Few in the military are prepared to believe that.

Nobody is ruling out the possibility of further violence of the kind that has paralyzed Bangkok on and off for the last three years, first when the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy, the so-called Yellow Shirts, supported by conservative army officers, staged months of strikes and sit-ins, taking over the parliament and seizing and closing the city’s international airports. The PAD ran weeks of street protests to help to bring down the PPP, then headed by the late Samak Sundarevej, when a constitutional court dissolved the party and banned its leaders from politics.

On the other side, the Red Shirts, known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, are in no mood for compromise, or to see a possible victory snatched away from them again. Over April and May of 2010, an estimated 100,000 Red Shirt demonstrators seized the center of Bangkok resulting in a bloody military crackdown on May 19 that saw 91 people killed, most of them protesters, and hundreds arrested in the wake of the breaking of the siege.

The bigger problem is that it appears that the glue that has held together the disparate elements of Thai society for generations – the royalty – appears to have lost any ability to influence the situation. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, frail and ailing, has been hospitalized for months and many feel he is unlikely ever to recover. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has been characterized in US diplomatic cables made public by the Wikileaks organization as unfit to lead.

With the royalty paralyzed, it appears there is little to keep the disparate elements of the society from each others’ throats. The Red Shirts, demanding democracy, are perceived as a threat to the established order made up of the Bangkok elites. Thaksin has played on those emotions, describing grandiose plans to rallies by telephone to better their lot.

Against that, the government has done all it can with its own populist program, increasing the rice subsidy, providing electricity free to poor households, subsidizing diesel fuel to the tune of US$10 million a day and granting raises to the country’s bloated civil service. It has promised to lift the minimum wage by 25 percent through 2012, is delivering education loans to 250,000 university students and making low-interest loans to taxi drivers. It has capped the prices of palm oil and sugar, among other commodities. The government has rigged the electoral process to the extent it can, cutting the number of directly elected seats in parliament from 400 to 375 and increasing party-list seats, which tend to favor the government, to 125.

Once again, the army is likely to try to engineer a coalition that will keep the royalists in power. But if that happens, voter anger could well swell out of control. It may well come down to Newin Chidchob and his ability to wheel and deal.

The question is whether the winner, on whichever side, is going to have the ability to pull the society back together.