Thai Election Not Likely To Resolve Protests

Ahead of Sunday’s elections, Thailand’s opposition vows to prevent the return of ousted politician Thaksin Shinawatra at all costs.

Nir Elias/Reuters

Thailand is on the eve of a national election likely to end up resolving nothing. This Sunday’s vote looms as just another spasm in the tumult that’s gripped the nation since anti-government protesters spilled onto Bangkok’s streets about three months ago.The only result that seems assured is more gridlock, confrontation and violence. “The election is drama only…with both sides fighting for justification,” says author and former politician Kriengsak Charoenwongsak. “Election in Thailand is a ceremony to justify yourself.” In any event, election results will remain unclear for weeks.

Skittish authorities will deploy 10,000 police officers in Bangkok, and up to 200,000 nationwide—made necessary by rising tension between pro- and anti-government Thais that has left almost a dozen people dead so far, and hundreds injured. Kriengsak suggests there is a chance for “sporadic violence” Sunday, although Pongsa Choonam, a leader of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee protest movement, tells me, “I don’t conceive there will be any violence of any kind. If any violence happens it won’t be because of the PDRC. We never promoted violence, from the beginning.”

This is an election nobody but the government and its backers wanted—not the Election Commission, the opposition Democrat Party, sundry judicial bodies, the Army, nor, least of all, the protesters. The PDRC fiercely resisted the poll, going so far as to block candidates from registering, thwart some early-voting programs, and restrict ballot distribution. A free and fair election may be the holy grail of protests, but in Bangkok, you would think the electorate was facing the kind of rigged vote perpetrated by thuggish regimes in places like Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea. That’s because almost everyone expects caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party to win—including the rival Democrat Party, which is boycotting the election, and the PDRC. Of course, protesters don’t attribute this likely victory to Yingluck’s policies or stewardship. They insist she and Pheu Thai bought the 2011 election, and will do so again. (The party won some three million more votes in 2011 than the Democrat Party, which is broadly aligned with the protesters.)

Pongsa, a darkly intense civil servant—his day job is in watershed management at the National Parks Department—who affects the mien of a swashbuckling revolutionarywith his cargo pants and multi-colored head scarf, explains the democracy conundrum with a semantical obfuscation worthy of Bill Clinton. “I’ve never believed that an election is the most important thing,” he says, sitting in the lobby lounge of the five-star Dusit Thani Hotel—insulated from the din of protesters who are occupying the key Silom Road-Rama IV Road intersection. “Morals are more important and more valuable than democracy.” The government, says this ally of protest kingpin Suthep Thaugsuban, came to office through “a process that may be lawful, but the way it is implemented is not moral.”

That’s just sophistry to those who see the election as another milestone in the epic struggle for control of Thailand, and who see the protesters as motivated by virulent fear and dislike of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister ousted in a 2006 coup. “I think the underlying election issue depends on who you talk to,” says Paul Chambers, of the institute of South East Asian Affairs. “For pro-Thaksin groups, the main issues focus on the achievement of economic and political democracy as well as chipping away of the traditional power structure. For those opposed to Thaksin, the main issue seems to be to prevent the establishment of a Hugo Chavez-like personalistic dictatorship in Thailand; to stop Putinism.”

Eradicating the Shinawatras from Thailand’s political landscape, a stated goal of Suthep, irks many for its inherent arbitrariness. It is also unrealistic, as the family does not appear set to disappear. Yodchanan Wongsawat, a 35-year-old nephew of Yingluck and Thaksin, is a Pheu Thai candidate for Parliament in Chiang Mai, in the north of the country. “I think it’s unfair to say who should be allowed to work for the good of the Thai people,” he tells me. “You can’t say one particular family can’t participate. I have no argument with Suthep, but people support me.” Given his constituency, he’s virtually assured a seat in the 500-member Parliament.

Nevertheless, the anti-Thaksin animus redounds so powerfully to Yingluck that she faces more pressure after the election. The country’s constitution requires that general-election voting occur on the same day throughout the kingdom, and disruptions may make that impossible. As of late Friday, for example, a number of provinces, mostly in the south, still lacked millions of ballots at polling stations. All this means the Constitutional Court could declare election results null and void. “This will end as an annulled election by the Constitutional Court, I think,” says Chambers. “And a new election mid-September.”

Further, the National Anti-Corruption Commission is investigating Yingluck’s handling of a rice-subsidy program. The scheme guaranteed Thai farmers a fixed price of almost $500 per ton of white rice, about 40 percent higher than the market rate. But it yielded losses in the tens of millions of dollars, and a mountain of unsold grain. The government has been battered by criticism and is seeking to borrow more than $4 billion to fund the program. Protesters characterize this as “corruption”—not just a failed administration program. The probe could lead to the PM’s impeachment.

Also lurking is the prospect of a coup d’etatby the military, regarded by many as anti-Shinawatra. Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha has insisted there will be no coup, but his demurrals have been less definitive of late. If Yingluck wins the election and judicial activism results in her ouster, anger among her many supporters could fuel major violence in the streets—which could in turn provide cover for the Army to step in. Legal expert Verapat Pariyawong sees the “pseudo uprising of the people” as a maneuver to trigger a coup: A “people’s council” as envisioned by Suthep would order the Army to intervene—with the generals maintaining that the overthrow is not a coup, merely the will of the people. We’ve seen that in Egypt. Verapat says Thais should come out and vote in force Sunday. “It is much more dangerous for Thailand not to have an election,” he said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

But the deck may be too stacked against the prime minister, Chambers says: “She can’t run that gauntlet.” Ironically, Yingluck got the ball rolling in the first place by—foolishly, even recklessly—pushing a political amnesty bill that would have brought Thaksin back from exile in Dubai. That provided her enemies the ammunition they craved.

Regardless, her supporters—primarily Thais in the north and northeast—would be unlikely to countenance her removal by the military, especially based on rulings by judicial bodies. Thus far the Shinawatra faithful—known as Red Shirts—have avoided a mass confrontation with the PDRC (although they are accused of being behind most of the recent violence). Some Thais even fear a civil war: The South China Morning Post reported more radical Red Shirts saying that if Yingluck were removed they would form a parallel government in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city—with Yingluck at the helm. The premier has not indicated any willingness to play such a role.

And so the election arrives with no thaw in relations between the Yingluck and Suthep camps. Protest leaders are sticking to their demands for “reform” before any election although they have not worked out the details. It is hard to see how reforms that get rid of “Thaksinism” could be carried out without disenfranchising many Red Shirt voters. Could the beloved monarchy broker some kind of Solomonic solution? The question alone left speakers at the foreign correspondents club’s election session squirming to respond without falling foul of the country’slèse majestélaw that mandates harsh penalties for insulting the royals. The palace has been silent during the troubles. In his December 5 birthday address, King Bhumibol Adulyadej urged his subjects to come together for the good of the nation. Sunday’s election and its aftermath are likely to show they are not heeding his exhortation.