Thailand's Electoral Showdown Nears

With six days to go before national elections, tension continues to grow in Thailand as the warring pro- and anti-Thaksin Shinawatra forces face off against each other. As an example, 35,000 policemen were deployed Sunday at 557 polling stations across the country as advance voting by 2.6 million voters got underway.

Police say assassins have shot dead several politicians and their supporters who represented various parties. Authorities are offering rewards up to $3,300 for their capture, and created a wanted poster (http://www.electioncenter.police.go.th/?p=76) online.

Although Thailand's polls are often poorly worded and subject to interpretation, they are consistently showing that the Pheu Thai Party headed by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, a surrogate for the fugitive former prime minister, is pulling away from the Democrat Party headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva although many remain undecided. The polls have a margin of error of up to 7 percent.

The July 3 election is for 500 seats in Parliament's lower house, contested by several parties likely to be forced into a coalition government, whoever wins, because it is unlikely that either of the two major parties, Pheu Thai or the Democrats, will have the numbers to rule outright. Some parties in Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's coalition, particularly the Bhum Jai Thai Party headed by political opportunist Newin Chidchob, have offered to switch their loyalty to Yingluck if she wins.

Both major parties offer similar polices including cheap health care, financial assistance for the poor, investment in big infrastructure projects, subsidized commodity prices, improvement in education and other tax-funded plans.

In other words, this election is not about policy. It is a referendum on Thaksin, on the run for five years, with US$1.2 billion of his fortune confiscated by the government after a corruption trial. He has described his sister as his "clone." The slogan for their Pheu Thai Party, or Party for Thais, is: "Thaksin Thinks. Pheu Thai Acts."

Thus Thailand, which has undergone nearly five years of political and electoral tumult, is about to leap into uncharted territory. Immunity from prosecution is the real game behind all the campaign speeches on both sides. Many Thais wonder if the military will tolerate a Yingluck victory or stage another coup if Abhisit is defeated after only 30 months in office. The country's military is dead set against allowing the former prime minister to come back. Pheu Thai and Thaksin, not just Yingluck, threaten seven decades of dominance of Thai politics by its generals, broken only by the interregnum between February 2001 and September 2006 when a coup drove Thaksin from power.

If Yingluck becomes the country's first female prime minister, observers say, she may start tribunals against the current government and military for their role in the deaths of 91 people during the army's assault against an anti-coup insurrection in April and May 2010 although she herself has repeatedly said she would grant a blanket "amnesty" to several people, including her brother.

Thai analysts warn an amnesty could cause a violent backlash by the anti-Thaksin generals, politicians and their supporters, the royalist Yellow Shirted People's Alliance for Democracy, which put on its own violent campaign for months, occupying the parliament and closing Bangkok's two airports for nine days before the People's Power Party, another Thaksin surrogate, was forced from power by a questionable court ruling. Abhisit himself has warned that an amnesty for Thaksin would “subvert the rule of law.”

Certainly, the country's top generals hardly believe any talk of amnesty. The military, which has staged 18 successful or attempted coups since the 1930s, is worried that an increasingly likely win by Pheu Thai would enable her and her party to investigate the coup which toppled her thrice-elected brother. Thaksin and his candidates want to "subvert the rule of law" by granting him amnesty, Abhisit recently said in a live televised debate hosted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Abhisit and top Democrat Party leaders also have reason to be afraid of being prosecuted for the deaths of the protesters who were gunned down when the military violently shut down last year's massive anti-government demonstration after weeks of tumult in the center of Bangkok.

"If there is evidence, then there must also be fair trials," Thaksin himself said from his exile in Dubai when asked about the killings during a Der Spiegel magazine interview published on June 15. "I recently read that an arrest warrant has been issued for [Libya's leader] Muammar Qaddafi, for ordering his troops to use live ammunition and deploying both snipers and tanks against protesters. Abhisit also did all that."

Abhisit, however, blamed the demonstrators. "I can confirm that the kind of wild allegations made against me -- that I ordered a violent crackdown, killings -- that doesn't just square up with the facts if you look at the chronology of events," he said in a televised Australian Broadcasting Corp. interview also shown on June 15.

"Should we hand the country to the very people who torched our nation's assets and public property?" Abhisit said in a recent election speech. "Don't let anyone further harass the country. Make it known that we are done with mob rule, violence and intimidation."

Vengeful members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the Red Shirts, are blamed for setting fire to 20 buildings in Bangkok during the 2010 crackdown, including luxury shopping malls, banks, the Stock Exchange and other offices, after the army crushed their bamboo barricades. The Reds say the focus should be on those -- mostly civilians -- who were killed during their nine-week insurrection which demanded that the 2006 coup be reversed so that Thaksin could return to Thailand as a free man.

However, "They opted for more deaths, so they can press the charge of killing people against me," Abhisit wrote on his Facebook page. On June 23, the embattled prime minister staged his final election rally in the wealthy Ratchaprasong intersection which the Red Shirts had barricaded, and where several people died during the army's final assault.

Immediately after their 2006 coup the military sought to cloak itself in immunity from prosecution and now wants to keep its generals out of court, including Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha who played a role in the putsch. Prayuth was later promoted to his current powerful post as army chief. The generals and Abhisit also draped themselves in additional immunity when they clamped much of Thailand under a lengthy "state of emergency" during and after their crackdown on the Red Shirts' 2010 insurrection.

While the Reds tend to support Thaksin's return, they also seek equal justice, wealth distribution, and tax-funded assistance, especially for poor agricultural and industrial workers. They sometimes simplistically cast their struggle as a class war between deserving Red prai -- a feudal description of lower-class citizens -- against a selfish ammart or ruling elite, which includes Abhisit, the military, royalists and many rich politicians and businessmen.

Thaksin, however, is a billionaire and his 44-year-old sister, an executive in his corporate empire, is also rich. But they successfully positioned themselves as pro-Red, while advancing their personal financial interests and boosting Bangkok's nouveau riche who are challenging traditional power centers, institutions, and "old money." Although Thaksin and the Reds may cynically use each other for their own gains, their alliance has shaken Thailand's rigid hierarchy and ancient kraab system of physically kowtowing to those above them.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com