What next after Thai election?

BBC News

Last Updated: Friday, 28 December 2007, 13:49 GMT

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Power People Party supporters celebrate in Bangkok (23/12/2007)

PPP won the most seat but not a clear majority

The general election in Thailand has left the country without a clear winner, and without a clear path out of the political crisis that broke out over the leadership of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra two years ago.

Although the People Power Party (PPP), formed by his supporters, won by far the greatest number of seats, 233, it is still eight short of an outright majority, and probably 30 or 40 short of the margin needed to function effectively in Thailand’s unsettled political climate.

Intense horse-trading between the PPP and smaller parties is now under way over the formation of a coalition government, the results of which will not be clear until the tally of seats is formally approved by the Election Commission (EC) early next month.

The EC is investigating a number of alleged breaches of the election regulations by candidates, and says it expects to disqualify at least 24 successful candidates.

The PPP claims to have a deal already with three small parties – Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana, Matchima Thippataya and Pracharaj – which would give it a working majority of 13 seats, but none of these parties will confirm any arrangements until after the EC has finalized the results.

There are plenty of rumours that the anti-Thaksin forces behind the coup within the military and the royal palace are pressurising small parties not to join the PPP; some Thais even believe that the coup-makers will try to cobble together a coalition of all the small parties and the Democrats, who have 165 seats.

Polarised country

But even before the smoke clears there are several aspects of Thailand’s confusing politics which have become clearer since this election.

A PPP supporter hold a picture of Thaksin Shinawatra during a campaign rally (21/12/2007)

Mr Thaksin still has a large support base in Thailand

One is that Thailand is just as polarised over Thaksin Shinawatra as it was before last year’s coup; one of the main justifications of the coup-makers was the need to end this polarisation, a task that was clearly beyond them.

Support for Mr Thaksin held up remarkably well in the poor but populous countryside of the north and north-east, despite all the efforts of the military-backed government to discredit him.

Many people in these areas have continued to feel indignation over the coup that deposed him.

But in Bangkok, by far the largest and wealthiest city in Thailand, the Democrats won 27 out of 36 seats.

In the last election they contested in 2005 the Democrats won only seven seats in the capital.

Any PPP government risks sparking off mass street protests in the capital if it acts too provocatively, similar to those that helped bring down Mr Thaksin’s administration in 2006.

There is a saying in Thailand that the countryside makes governments, but the capital breaks them.

 

Two-party system

The election has also seen the emergence of something like a two-party system, with most of the seats shared between the PPP and the Democrats, and the smaller parties squeezed into winning just a handful of seats each.

Election posters in Nakhon Ratchasima, northeast of Bangkok

Most people voted for one of the two main parties

The coup-makers had hoped the smaller parties, many of them recently formed by defectors from Mr Thaksin’s old party Thai Rak Thai, would do well, creating a substantial middle swathe of parties who could be persuaded to form a coalition with the Democrats.

But despite all the fine-tuning they did to the new constitution, most voters appear to have seen the election as a clear choice between the two big parties.

So what are the chances that the formation of a new government will help mend fences between these two camps? Not great.

There is the unanswered question of who would head a PPP coalition government.

The PPP leader, Samak Sundaravej insists that he should be prime minister. But many Thais are appalled at the thought of this brash, undiplomatic man leading the country.

Thaksin loyalists are believed to be searching for alternatives, although they may find it hard to get Mr Samak to give up the prize.

 

Royal influence

Mr Samak is in some ways an odd choice to fill Mr Thaksin’s shoes. He made his name as a right-wing rabble-rouser in 1976, encouraging vigilante squads to attack left-wing students, many of whom were brutally killed.

People's Power Party leader Samak Sundaravej casts his vote in Bangkok.

Mr Samak has been open about his support for Mr Thaksin

Some of the survivors of those purges, who spent years in the jungle with the Communist Party fighting the central government, went on to become key members of Thai Rak Thai.

It is assumed Mr Samak was chosen by the PPP partly because his outspoken style grabs attention and appeals to some Thais, but also because he is an ardent royalist, and could help fend off accusations that Thai Rak Thai was hostile towards the monarchy.

He is also known to have a long-standing dislike for Prem Tinsulanonda, the president of the King’s Privy Council, and a man believed to have been extremely influential behind the scenes during the tumultuous events of the past 18 months.

Gen Prem is a former army commander, who was also prime minister for most of the 1980s and is perhaps the King’s most trusted advisor.

Many believe his distrust of Mr Thaksin helped contribute to the coup.

A Samak government might have just as fractious a relationship with the palace.

There is another unanswered question over what happens to Thaksin Shinawatra when he fulfils his promise to return to Thailand.

The Attorney-General’s office has confirmed that he would be arrested the moment he landed on outstanding charges of abusing his power as prime minister in a land purchase by his wife; there are several other charges pending.

But a PPP-led government might make the climate a good deal easier for Mr Thaksin, as his supporters argue that the charges are politically-motivated, and would likely press to have them withdrawn.

 

Balanced system

Mr Thaksin’s arrival would certainly stir up emotions among his supporters and detractors.

Thaksin Shinawatra speaks at a press conference in Hong Kong (25/12/2007)

Mr Thaksin has said he will stay out of Thailand’s politics if he returns

He has vowed to stay away from politics, but few Thais believe he means that, despite the ban on political activity imposed on him in May.

One priority for him will be to get the courts to unfreeze around $2bn (£1bn) of his assets.

If he succeeds, his opponents fear such a formidable war-chest would enable him to re-build the political dominance he enjoyed as prime minister.

All this uncertainty means no-one is thinking about the most important lesson of the past two years; how can Thailand develop a political system which reflect the wishes of all its voters, and with checks and balances built into it which are independent enough to resist the power of a politician as popular and wealthy as Thaksin Shinawatra?

Until more progress is made towards that goal, the country will continue to be torn between its impoverished rural electorate, and a wealthy, urban elite, who still cannot agree on how Thailand should be governed, and who should run it.

 

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