Thailand Readying for an Election?

The release on bail by Thailand's Criminal Court of seven detained leaders of the anti-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) -- the Red Shirt movement – is regarded by observers as a move to ease tensions in advance of elections scheduled for sometime before the end of this year.

April and June have been touted as possible months for an early poll, although April looks less likely now given tensions with neighboring Cambodia and the tightening lead-in time to an April vote. Continuing coup rumors, though nothing new in Thailand, and the possibility of all-out fighting with Cambodia around the Preah Vihear temple have added an extra frisson to these early weeks of an election year.

On Feb. 19, 25,000 to 30,000 Red Shirts gathered near the Democracy Monument, vowing to continue mass rallies in March if bail requests by the seven were denied. That rally was just a couple of kilometers from where 3,000 to 4,000 rival People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or Yellow Shirt protestors have been camped out for around a month, demanding that Abhisit take back land surrounding the temple that they say was stolen by Cambodia.

According to Kanit Na Nakorn, head of one of the two reform and reconciliation panels established by Abhisit in the wake of the March-May 2010 protests, the temporary release of the jailed Red Shirt leaders was "a first step in the right direction paving the way for reconciliation" in the wake of violence in May of 2010 when more than 80 civilians and 6 soldiers were killed, and more than 2,100 were injured.

The two-month siege was aimed at taking down the governing coalition led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva and his Democrat Party, but ended in violence on May 19 when the Thai army made its final assault on the Red Shirt encampment in the city shopping district.

Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul says the panels have achieved little of note. He says that key issues such as "truth and justice regarding the May 2010 killings" remain unresolved and that "efforts to cover up and denial of responsibility continue."

Some observers say the temporary release of the Red Shirt leaders could address accusations of "double standards" in Thai politics and law, leveled by the Red Shirts against what they regard as elitist or royalist forces.

Two weeks ago, the same court that granted the Red Shirt leaders bail agreed with an appeal against the lese-majeste sentence of Daranee Chanchoengsilpakul, better-known as "Da Torpedo," who was jailed in August 2009 for insulting Thailand's monarchy. Her case has been moved to the Constitutional Court after the original proceedings were deemed a mistrial.

On the other hand, just hours before the seven Red Shirt leaders were released, Surachai Danwattananusorn, leader of a splinter group called "Red Siam" was arrested for remarks made in December that have been deemed offensive to the monarchy.

The seven freed protest leaders have said that they will rejoin the movement's almost-monthly protests, with the next set for March 12, the anniversary of the start of the so-called "Million Man March" last year.

Prominent Yellow Shirt Surayasi Katasila accused the Abhisit government of undermining the judiciary by sending state witnesses to testify that the jailed Red Shirts should be released on bail. "If the release of red leaders is part of the reconciliation process, then this is an unforgivable mistake," he said.

Abhisit, who came to power after months of Yellow Shirt protests in 2008, followed by a court intervention in 2008 and the defection to his side of former coalition partners in the then majority Red Shirt-aligned administration, wants to win an election and counter the perceived legitimacy deficit that surrounds his administration. Red shirt leaders in jail might add to the tensions in an election time and allow the opposition allege an uneven playing field.

There may be other ways to tilt the balance towards the incumbent, with recent electoral changes possibly set to work in Abhisit's favor come polling day. These changes include amending the electoral format, expanding party list representation in parliament and moving the remaining constituency seats from a multi-seat to a single-seat format.

Nonetheless, wary Thais are on the lookout for a so-called nuclear option before any election that Abhisit and his allies might lose.

"Overthrowing a third elected government would not look good," said analyst Chris Baker, referring to the removal from office of Red Shirt-aligned administrations in 2006 and 2008 by military coup and court ruling respectively, "so perhaps by stirring up a crisis they can pre-empt the need for an election".

The government that was ousted in 2006 was headed by fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, while the 2008 government was headed by a party backed by him from outside. Thaksin faces jail time in Thailand for corruption charges, and has been accused of terrorism by Abhisit's administration, allegedly fomenting and funding the March-May 2010 redshirt protests.

According to Baker, the Yellow Shirt protest is not only putting pressure on Abhisit to appear tough on a "national security" and "sovereignty" issue, but serves the interests of elements within Thai politics who perhaps do not want an election this year, or anytime soon.

According to Baker, the prospect of Thaksin's eventual return to Thailand stirs "a sort of panic" among supporters of the current government and among Yellow Shirts, who feel that an election could result in a win for the Thaksin-linked Peua Thai party, now the main party in Thailand's opposition, and in turn bring about the aforementioned dystopian scenario.

Speaking to journalists on Wednesday Samana Photirak, who heads the ascetic Buddhist sect known as Santi Asok, a key faction taking part in the Yellow Shirt protests, said that "what we have today is a government that is not democratic and is even worse than the previous one, because it uses the many tricks up its sleeve to give the impression of democratization."

Conversely, the ruling coalition has undertaken a wide range of spending projects in the poverty-stricken Northeast section of the country, targeting the geographic and socio-economic sectors thought to be favorable to the Red Shirts and the opposition.

Last week, for example, the cabinet signed off on a land reform proposal forwarded by one of the maligned reform panels set up by Abhisit after last year's crisis, another potentially important selling point in the Democrat election campaign.