Junta uneasy as Thailand goes back to the polls

Guardian Unlimited

Ian MacKinnon in Bangkok
Saturday December 22, 2007
The Guardian

Fifteen months after the bloodless coup that unseated prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand will go to the polls again tomorrow to restore the democracy taken by the generals.

Thaksin will not be present, but he casts a long shadow over the contest. His ruling Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved by the junta and Thaksin barred from office. But last night Chalerm Yoobamrung, a political ally, claimed Thaksin would return to Thailand on February 14.

Political rivals in the Democrat party – in a neck-and-neck race with Thai Rak Thai’s reincarnation, the People’s Power party (PPP) – fear the 58-year-old billionaire’s enduring potency.

Polls suggest the PPP, led by the veteran rightwinger, Samak Sundaravej, might even win an outright majority of the 480 parliamentary seats.

A clear PPP win would pose a headache for the junta. Sunai Thasuk, of Human Rights Watch, believes army surveillance tantamount to harassment shows the junta has set its face against a PPP victory, which could spawn trouble if it refuses to recognise the election result. “That would put Thailand in a very, very dangerous position,” he said.

Should the PPP fail to secure a majority then analysts believe the military will put pressure on smaller parties to join a Democrat coalition led by the Oxford-educated 43-year-old Abhisit Vejjajiva, a suave figure favoured by Bangkok’s urban elite.

“We’re not going to have certainty after the election,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies. “We have deep-seated polarisation in the electorate that will only be magnified by the election results.”

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