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Thais will decide the outcome today of the latest round in a feud that has dominated the country’s politics for a decade and which polls say will be won by allies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the man at the center of the divide.
A clear majority in the 500-seat Parliament in today’s election for the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai would see his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who heads the party, become Thailand’s first female prime minister. It may also raise the prospect of a return by Thaksin, who was deposed in a 2006 coup and has been shaping Pheu Thai’s strategy from exile in Dubai.
“Those most committed to the 2006 coup hold to the hope that their long-denied objectives of breaking Thaksin forces can still be executed,” said Michael Connors, a Thai scholar at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “But the last five years prove otherwise, and they now confront a mobilized movement with depth well beyond what anyone imagined.”
While army chiefs have said they won’t carry out a coup if Pheu Thai wins, concern of post-election violence has rattled the stock market and heightened concerns that prolonged protests will harm a tourism industry that makes up 7 percent of gross domestic product. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has said Pheu Thai will grant Thaksin amnesty if it wins in an effort to galvanize opponents of the former premier who view him as a corrupt billionaire aiming to topple the monarchy.
“If Thaksin was able to come back in this country and control the government, there’s a lot of people who are very scared about the personal impact to themselves because of their involvement with the coup,” said Andrew Stotz, a strategist at Kim Eng Securities (Thailand) Pcl, the nation’s largest stock brokerage. “All those people are putting every effort to persuade the smaller parties to stay with the Democrat party.”
About 70 percent of Thailand’s 67 million people are eligible to vote. Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. and close at 3 p.m. Unofficial results are expected to be announced after 8 p.m., according to Election Commission spokesman Paiboon Lekprom. The agency will certify winning candidates within 30 days, after which Parliament will meet to pick a prime minister.
Abhisit arrived at a polling station near his home in a bullet-proof black Range Rover at 10:10 a.m., which he said was an auspicious number. Yingluck and Thaksin’s three children cast their votes at separate polling stations earlier in the day.
Chalerm Yoobamrung, a former interior minister and Pheu Thai candidate, told a rally July 1 in Bangkok that the party would win “a clear victory” of between 280 to 320 seats. Abhisit said June 14 that his Democrat party would be happy if it won more than 200 seats.
A poll released June 19 by the Bangkok-based Suan Dusit Rajabhat University gave Pheu Thai 52 percent of the vote and the Democrats 34 percent. The poll of 102,994 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 7 to 10 percentage points. Of the 500 seats up for grabs, 375 are chosen in constituencies and 125 through proportional representation.
If Pheu Thai fails to win a majority, it would need to cobble together a coalition with smaller parties that won 17 percent of seats in the 2007 election to form a government. The party accused the army of meddling in the 2008 parliamentary vote in which its coalition partners and a group of Thaksin defectors switched sides to give the premiership to Abhisit.
“I want people to stop talking about a coup,” Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said after casting his vote today. “The military has a duty to make sure the country is peaceful. They do things to benefit the country, the people and to protect the institution. There is nothing to worry about.”
‘Sense of Injustice’
If Pheu Thai wins a plurality and the Democrats end up forming the next government with the help of military pressure on the smaller parties, pro-Thaksin supporters will feel aggrieved, Singapore-based political risk firm Vriens & Partners said in an election report released last month.
“It would infuriate all those who had voted for Pheu Thai, and who would feel that, based on its plurality, it should be accorded the opportunity to form a coalition government without interference from the military,” the report said. “The larger Pheu Thai’s victory margin is, the greater the sense of injustice.”
Bhum Jai Thai, a party composed of Thaksin defectors who helped shift power to Abhisit three years ago, said Pheu Thai was inflating its numbers so it could claim electoral fraud if it was unable to form a government. Party spokesman Supachai Chaisamut said Bhum Jai Thai may win 70 seats in the election.
Thaksin, 61, who founded what became Thailand’s biggest mobile-phone company, has maintained his popularity among poorer northern Thais who make up a majority of the population and recall his policies of affordable health care and cheap loans. Parties linked to him have won at least 15 percent more seats than the Democrats in the last four elections.
Abhisit, 46, became prime minister in a 2008 parliament vote two weeks after a court disbanded the ruling pro-Thaksin party for election fraud. Thaksin’s Red Shirt supporters have blockaded parts of the capital since to push for an election, leading to violence that killed 91 people a year ago.
The SET Index dropped 3 percent in June, the biggest monthly decline since January, with state-owned Thai Airways International Pcl (THAI) losing 18 percent. The baht fell 1.4 percent in that time, declining two months in a row for the first time since the end of protests a year ago.
The Asian Network for Free Elections, the only foreign group monitoring the polls, said last week an excessive number of extra ballots were printed in violation of Thailand’s election laws, raising fears of electoral fraud. Pheu Thai also complained that the Election Commission used a smaller version of its logo on the ballot paper than that of the other 41 parties running, increasing the risk of spoiled votes.
Since the 2006 coup, courts have disbanded two pro-Thaksin parties and disqualified two prime ministers backed by his allies. Thailand has had 10 coups since absolute monarchy ended in 1932, and of its 27 prime ministers in that time, 12 have been military leaders.
“Thailand is still a semi-democracy,” said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok. “Violence, division and polarization will remain a hallmark of Thai democracy for the foreseeable future.”
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