Thailand: An Upcoming Milestone Election

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December 19, 2007 19 42  GMT

Summary
Millions of Thais are expected to turn out for Thailand’s first election since the September 2006 coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Dec. 23 election marks the start of Thailand’s next cycle of political chaos and drama. Tactical noise aside, though, political volatility will remain largely under control — if not subside — after these elections, and major political fault lines will continue shaping themselves around Thaksin.

Analysis
Millions of Thais are expected to turn out Dec. 23 for Thailand’s first parliamentary election since former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a September 2006 coup. Of the 45.6 million eligible voters, 6.5 percent have cast their votes in advance elections held the prior weekend; the record turnout is double that seen in the 2005 election. More than 70 percent of Bangkok citizens are predicted to vote Dec. 23.

Tactical drama has reached fever pitch in recent weeks; smaller parties (the Matchima Thipataya Party, for example) have imploded as a result of in-party fighting and corruption charges, while others have been broadcasting stories of hand grenades being thrown in central party offices. This is all part and parcel of traditional Thai politics, where political intimidation and last-minute political defections and realignments define politicians’ self-opportunistic nature.

Despite the military regime’s many attempts to displace Thaksin from Thai politics, his political influence continues, primarily because the regime has failed to cut all credit lines from the enormous coffers he uses to fund supporters at home. He will be watching the elections from neighboring Hong Kong.

These elections are a milestone and symbolize (but not complete) the delivery of the military government’s promise to return Thailand to true democratic rule. Social and security stability — both across the country and inside Bangkok — depend on the Dec. 23 elections being held, and on their perceived legitimacy. The Bangkok public desires the election as a precondition for daily life and business to return to the pre-coup norm. Various political factions desire it as a way to get back into the Thai political scene (from which they have been barred for much of last year). And the military regime desires it as a stamp of success on its year of interim governance.
There are two major parties in the running: the People Power Party (PPP), which is acting as Thaksin’s proxy party, and the Democrats, Thailand’s oldest political party, which is made up of respected figureheads that symbolize stability (if a somewhat limited capacity for responsive dynamic governance). Only one of these two parties can win a majority of seats in parliament, and whoever does will have to pull together a coalition government with smaller fringe political parties (such as Chat Thai or Puea Pandin).

Even if the military regime does not see its party of choice elected, it is unlikely to throw another coup because it already has successfully reinserted itself into the background of Thai politics as an independent check — primarily through the new Internal Security Act (ISA) that grants the military unprecedented powers to act behind the scenes. By throwing the September 2006 coup, the military revived its role as staunch protector of the country’s national interests. By making the ISA law before the government is changed, it is ensuring the permanence of that role.

Security forces on alert in Bangkok and throughout the north and northeast (Thaksin’s traditional support base) are at a record high. Nonmilitary elements will not be able to gather the at least 10,000 to 12,000 people necessary for a demonstration capable of overturning election results — both pro- and anti-Thaksin elements have tried and failed repeatedly to do so throughout the last year. Limited instability or violence could surface after results come available on Dec. 24 driven either by anti-Thaksin (if PPP wins) or pro-Thaksin (if Democrats win) elements, but any such instability will be contained.

Since the coup, a growing public preference has emerged for a reversal of the privatization trend that began under Thaksin. Various assets (e.g. a television station, pipeline assets of the state oil player Petroleum Authority of Thailand) have since been returned to state control. Although both PPP and the Democrats (with their business factions) have historically been more inclined toward Western trade principles, whoever wins will need at least another year to consolidate control over the new government structure and stop this trend. The victor will need to prove its ability to govern to the Thai public and avoid triggering the nationalistic sentiment that triggered Thaksin’s overthrow.

Incompetent economic management and haphazard changes made to capital control policies have shaken Thailand’s markets in the 14 months following the coup. In the more stable post-election climate, the new government will have more political flexibility to inject longer-term economic (as opposed to just political) factors into how Thailand’s future economic policies are shaped. This should make regulations relatively more predictable for foreign investors.

In sum, there are only two certainties about the Dec. 23 election. The first is that the new government will be a coalition, led either by the PPP or the Democrats but not both. The second is that no foreign policies — Thai or otherwise — will change as a result of the election.

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