Poll unlikely to pull Thailand from political mire

20 December 2007

BANGKOK – Thais vote on Sunday in an election meant to restore democracy and heal deep rifts unresolved by a 2006 military coup, but it looks certain to prolong the deep political divisions of the last two years. All polls point to a sizeable victory for the People Power Party (PPP), a vehicle for supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, although it is highly unlikely the PPP will manage to win an outright majority and be able to govern alone.

Just as unlikely is the army and the royalist establishment standing by and letting PPP, which has made bringing the still wildly popular Thaksin back from exile its main priority, form a coalition with ‘middle ground’ minor parties.

‘The PPP represents a direct challenge to the military-backed government, and isn’t shy in saying so,’ political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University said.

‘For fear of revenge and retribution, the military-backed government has to ensure the PPP does not end up leading the post-election government.’

The army and its proxies could file numerous electoral fraud charges against PPP candidates, either getting them disqualified outright or miring them in Thailand’s byzantine court system for so long they become irrelevant.

They are then likely to push for a coalition government led by the Democrats, the main opposition during Thaksin’s five years in power, who are forecast to win 100-120 seats in the 480 seat parliament.

Such an outcome would get the thumbs up from foreign investors, who feel comfortable with the Democrats’ Eton- and Oxford-educated leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.

But with PPP the biggest party in parliament, and with plenty of support on the streets and powerful friends in the police and big business, such a government would be unlikely to last more than a year, analysts say.

‘We will be in for a rough ride,’ said Thaksin biographer and Chulalongkorn academic Pasuk Phongpaichit.

Coup no. 19?

The root of the problem is that the coup—the 18th in 75 years of on-off democracy—failed to kill off Thaksin, an ethnic Chinese telecoms billionaire who won landslides in 2001 and 2005 on the back of cheap healthcare and handouts to farmers.

Even after 15 months of exile, mainly in London, and various inconclusive attempts to prosecute him for corruption, he remains the central figure in the political arena and still arouses passionate emotion in his supporters and detractors.

Turbulence could follow the election, with both camps threatening to take to the streets if they feel unfairly done by.

If protests do start, another military coup—doubtless painted as ‘intervention in the interests of national unity’—is possible, and Thailand will be back to square one, split once again along pro- and anti-Thaksin lines.

‘I don’t see this election as solving anything,’ U.S.-based academic Kevin Hewison said.

‘The emerging political system is unlikely to be inclusive. It will be dominated by a conservative palace, the royalist military and the dead weight of the bureaucracy.’

Whereas most Thais and investors crave an end to the confrontation, the struggle for control between the traditional and the modern is likely to drag on for months and years.

‘There is no end in sight,’ said political scientist Somjai Phagaphasvivat at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. ‘This is just the beginning.’

The financial markets are expecting the emergence of an elected government to signal the end of a period of disappointing economic growth, likely to fall towards four percent this year from 5.1 percent in 2006 and the lowest in six years.

That would provide a psychological boost and in practical terms even a weak coalition government was likely to put major infrastructure spending plans involving billions of dollars, suspended during the turmoil, back on track, analysts say. (Editing by Michael Battye)



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