Q&A: Thai election

BBC News

Thais are going to the polls for the first time since the military seized power last year. The BBC looks at the main issues surrounding the election.

How important are the polls?

Thaksin Shinawatra

These are the first polls since Thaksin was ousted in a coup

These polls are very important – not only because they will decide who runs the country, but also because they will return the nation to democratic rule.

Thailand has been run by a military-backed interim government since September 2006, when military leaders ousted democratically-elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup.

Their intervention followed months of street demonstrations in Bangkok, accusing Mr Thaksin of corruption and abuse of power.

During this interim period, many of the rules put in place by the military have gradually been relaxed but martial law remains in place in a third of the country.

Thais hope these elections will bring an end to the political instability and also restore foreign investors’ confidence.

Is Mr Thaksin standing?

No. He has been living in exile since the coup and faces arrest on corruption charges if he returns to Thailand.

His party, Thai Rak Thai, is not running either. It was dissolved by a military-backed tribunal in May after it was found guilty of violating electoral laws. More than 100 of its top officials, including Mr Thaksin, were banned from politics for five years.

But the fact he is not a candidate does not mean Mr Thaksin is out of the picture – he is undoubtedly the central figure in this election.

Support for him remains strong, particularly in poor rural areas which benefited from his populist policies.

Former Thai Rak Thai lawmakers have formed the People Power Party (PPP) and Mr Thaksin’s supporters have united behind it.

PPP leader Samak Sundaravej has pledged to bring Mr Thaksin back to Thailand if his party wins the election.

So who are the contenders?

The two leading parties are the People Power Party and the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest party and the main opposition to Mr Thaksin when he was in power.

Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva

The Democrats, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, are PPP’s main rivals

Opinion polls suggest that the PPP is ahead of its rival, but neither party is expected to win an outright majority.

There are several small parties – of whom the most prominent are Chart Thai, Puea Pandin, Matchima and Ruam Jai Thai.

Analysts see a coalition government between one of the two leading parties and several smaller parties as the likely outcome.

What are the main campaign issues?

Most parties have learned from Mr Thaksin’s success and are courting poorer voters with promises of greater spending on healthcare, education and infrastructure.

Politicians have also stressed their commitment to improving the economy, which has been hit by the political instability of recent months.

In light of the corruption allegations against Mr Thaksin and other politicians, they are also keen to emphasise their determination to run a clean government.

But the key issue of this election appears to be whether or not voters want Mr Thaksin back.

Will it be a fair election?

The military has made no secret of the fact that it does not want the PPP to win.

The PPP accuses the military of dirty tricks, citing a classified memo from the military council setting out strategies for derailing its campaign.

The election commission tossed out the PPP’s complaint, saying the document “only referred to some plans which were not implemented”.

But in a statement in early December, US-based group Human Rights Watch said that “the military’s efforts to restrict the campaign activities of Thaksin’s allies should be of concern to all of Thailand’s political parties”.

The group accused key state institutions, including the election commission, of becoming “tools of military rule”.

So what happens if PPP wins?

Any move by the PPP to bring Mr Thaksin back would put the party on a collision course with the military.

But after nearly 18 months of instability, there appears to be little public appetite for another coup.

The military has also repeatedly denied it would take action if the PPP won, with army chief Gen Anupong Paojinda describing the suggestion as “the most stupid idea”.

What is more likely, say analysts, is that post-election challenges and complaints – upon which the election commission would rule – could delay or prevent the formation of a PPP-led government.

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