Thai voters face their third election in six years after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament to help defuse anti-government protests that are now in their second month in Bangkok.
Should an election proceed on Feb. 2 as mandated by Royal Decree, voters will have to choose between a party aligned with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother whose allies have won the past five elections, and the Democrat party, which hasn’t won a national poll in two decades and whose leader faces murder charges stemming from a 2010 military crackdown on pro-Thaksin demonstrators. The opposition could also opt to boycott the poll, as it did in 2006.
If Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party is returned to office with a smaller majority, it would further narrow the scope for Thaksin to return from self-imposed exile to avoid what he says are politically motivated corruption charges. Thailand would also appear no closer to ending almost a decade of political uncertainty that threatens to sap economic growth at a time the central bank has already cut interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point and stocks have fallen 17 percent from a high reached in May.
“Thailand’s crisis will not be resolved unless there is an unlikely compromise, bloody civil war, or the king steps in,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University. “He might do so again,” Chambers said.
Thailand has seen violent crackdowns on protesters pushing for greater democracy throughout King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s more than 67-year reign, including in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. The king intervened in 1992 when then-Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon and opposition leader Chamlong Srimuang knelt before him and swore to cooperate in ending bloody clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators and the armed forces.
In his birthday speech to the nation Dec. 5, King Bhumibol didn’t directly comment on the recent political unrest. “All Thais should be united and supportive to each other for the national interest,” he said. The army has also avoided publicly intervening, offering to mediate and assuring the public of its intention to prevent violence.
The baht, Thai bonds and stocks all gained yesterday on Yingluck’s decision to call elections. Thai financial markets are shut today for the Constitution Day holiday.
More than 250,000 protesters marched across Bangkok yesterday to call for Yingluck’s ouster. Protest leaders said Yingluck’s move to dissolve parliament won’t halt their push to install an unelected council in its place. Opposition lawmakers quit parliament en masse Dec. 8 to join the protests.
The U.S. supports a democratic process for Thailand, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement yesterday. “We encourage all involved to resolve political differences peacefully and democratically in a way that reflects the will of the Thai people,” Psaki said.
The rallies began in opposition to a proposed amnesty law that Yingluck’s critics said would benefit her brother, which the government abandoned, and later morphed into a broader movement to erase Thaksin’s political influence.
Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party remains popular in much of Thailand, particularly the rural north and northeast, where Thaksin’s populist policies have spurred growth and awakened political awareness among voters who say they their voices were long ignored by governments focused on urban Bangkok.
Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai, or ‘Thais Love Thais’, party captured a record number of parliamentary seats in February 2005 elections, delivering the first absolute majority in the country’s history and making Thaksin the first prime minister elected for two consecutive terms. Thaksin was ousted in a military coup a year later, after months of demonstrations by opponents who accused him of corruption and disrespecting the monarchy.
Protesters “should wait for a fresh election to take place, allowing a majority of the people to make a decision,” Yingluck told reporters today after a cabinet meeting. “We have done our best to avoid violence. We have stepped back.”
The reaction outside the capital to the unrest is key, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University. “Bangkok is not Thailand, certainly, and we have not heard from the rest of Thailand,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. If the government falls, its supporters “will show up for revenge in Bangkok and we could see exacerbated, intensified civil conflict.”
The demonstrators accuse parties linked to Thaksin of vote-buying and Yingluck’s administration of corruption and economic mismanagement. They have called for an appointed committee of “good people” to implement political reforms before handing power to a new, elected government.
Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat party lawmaker who is leading the protests, reiterated demands for an appointed committee during a speech to supporters at Government House late yesterday.
Yingluck allowed protesters to seize government buildings without police resistance last week in an effort to avoid violence that could give powerful institutions reason to intervene, said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Those institutions may have pressured Yingluck to dissolve the house, he said.
“One can only expect the government, now with a caretaker status, will continue to turn the other cheek,” Montesano said. “But the Democrats clearly smell blood. And, without some sort of outside pressure on them to calm down, there is every reason to expect them to continue to agitate for a very different political system.”
Legal action may still bring down Yingluck and the Pheu Thai party, Montesano said. A Thaksin-allied government was derailed by a court decision in 2008, a move his supporters have labeled a judicial coup.
Chambers said the unrest may become protracted given the entrenched positions of government supporters, known as red shirts, and opposition supporters, known as yellow shirts.
“Suthep implies that his movement represents most Thai people against Thaksin and a bunch of ruffian hillbilly red shirts,” he said. “That is hogwash of course. Meanwhile, we cannot say that this is conflict between royalists, the military and a few Democrat party elites against the real Thai people, as championed by Thaksin and Yingluck.” Each side has “passionate standpoints.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Blake in Bangkok at firstname.lastname@example.org