Dec 19, 2007, 8:38 GMT
Bangkok – Thailand heads for a general election on Sunday that most observers believe will neither bridge the country’s deep political divide nor restore much stability to politics.
The election will fulfill the promise of the Thai military to bring back democracy to the kingdom within a year of so after their September 19, 2006, coup that toppled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra on charges of corruption and dividing the nation.
Thaksin, a billionaire former telecommunications tycoon, won the 2001 and 2005 general elections on populist platforms that endeared him and his Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) to Thailand’s rural poor.
But abuses of power, albeit elected power, eventually won him the enmity of Thailand’s urban middle classes and the political elite, including the military, culminating in last September’s coup. Sunday’s polls are likely to show that Thailand is still deeply divided into anti- and pro-Thaksin camps despite efforts by the military and their appointed cabinet to shatter the Thaksin political machine over the past year, analysts say.
On May 30 Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that TRT had committed fraud in the 2006 snap election (results of which were later annulled), leading to the dissolution of the party and the banning of its 111 top executives including Thaksin from politics for a five-year period.
Many former TRT politicians, including the ones banned from politics, thereafter formed a new political party called the People Party Party (PPP) to contest the December 23 polls.
The PPP’s main election platform has been to promise to bring Thaksin back to Thailand (he has been living in exile since the coup) and guarantee he gets fair treatment by the judicial system (he faces several corruption cases.)
Thaksin has reportedly shifted from his house in London to his luxury apartment in Hong Kong to observe Sunday’s election outcome. Most opinion polls have put the PPP way ahead of its nearest rival, the 61-year-old Democrat Party, which was the main opposition party during Thaksin’s six years in power.
Unfortunately for the Democrats – one of the few real political institutions in Thailand’s traditional set up of personality-led parties – they have linked in the minds of the public with the military and its appointed interim government.
‘We find that some of the surge in popularity of the PPP in recent days reflects the dissatisfaction people have with the current government,’ said Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party.
Thailand’s appointed cabinet under Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has had a lack-lustre performance on the economic front. The country’s economy is expected to grow 4.3 per cent this year, the lowest growth rate in South-east Asia.
There are altogether 480 contested seats in Sunday’s polls, including 400 members of parliament to represent Thailand’s 76 provinces, and 80 party-list MPS, who will win in proportion to the number of total votes each party gets.
Altogether 43 parties are contesting the election but the two main rivals are PPP, headed by Samak Sundravej, 72, and the Democrats, led by Abhisit, 43.
A handful of medium-sized parties, such as the Puea Pendin (For the Motherland), Chart Thai (Thai Nation) and Ruam Jai Thai (Thai Hearts Together) parties are expected to win enough seats to become partners in a post-polls coalition government.
While there is little doubt that the PPP will win the most seats in Sunday’s election, whether or not they form the next government will depend on whether they get a clear majority, insiders said.
‘If the PPP gets more than half the seats, say 230, then most of the other parties will join, otherwise they will miss the train,’ said Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former Thai Rak Thai executive who now advises the PPP.
On the other hand, Chaturon said, if the PPP wins only 190 to 200 seats, even though it has the most MPs it is likely that the Democrats will end up forming the core of a coalition government, leaving the PPP as opposition.
Some of smaller parties, such as the Puea Pendin, have campaigned on a platform of restoring stability to Thai politics, a rather obvious message that they are opposed to PPP assuming power.
‘I don’t think Thailand can afford political confrontation in terms of social division anymore,’ said Peau Pendin so-founder Surakiart Sathirathai.
Many observers would agree with Surakiart that a Democrat coalition might be better for Thai political stability in the short run. Given the PPP’s close ties to Thaksin, it can be assumed that the Thai military, which went through the bother of ousting him with a coup, will not be pleased to see a pro-Thaksin party leading the next government.
‘If the PPP wins by a landslide and begins to crush the military, I’m sure than a coup will happen again,’ said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
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