Thai Election Set to Fail in Resolving Strife as Boycott Looms

Thailand’s third general election since a 2006 coup is unlikely to quell the nation’s civil strife, with the main opposition party boycotting the Feb. 2 poll and protesters pushing for an appointed government.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is deploying 10,000 police in Bangkok alone, having declared a state of emergency, as she seeks to avoid a repeat of violence that obstructed advance voting on Jan. 26 in the south and most of the capital. Even if the vote goes smoothly, no winner can be declared or government formed until by-elections are held in dozens of districts where protesters blocked candidates from registering.

Suthep Thaugsuban, the former opposition party power broker leading the street campaign, says he speaks for a “silent majority” who don’t want elections until Yingluck is replaced with an appointed council that would erase what they call her family’s corrupting political influence. Yingluck says such a council would be undemocratic and an affront to the almost 16 million people who elected her in 2011.

A strong turnout on Feb. 2 would “add significant pressure” for the demonstrators to halt their protest, Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained lawyer and independent analyst, said in Bangkok. It would “show in and of itself that Thai people still want to go ahead with a parliament that comes from elections.”

More Marches

Suthep has announced plans for a march across Bangkok on election day, while backing away from previous vows to obstruct voting. The protesters are already blocking several major intersections in the city in a bid to prevent Yingluck’s government from functioning.

“We do not want to participate in this election,” Suthep told supporters Jan. 29. “We do not want Yingluck and her people to use this election as a tool to return to power and then enjoy their abuse of power and corruption.”

Suthep’s supporters in the south and in Bangkok first blocked candidates from registering for the polls and then blockaded polling stations for the advance vote. They were unable to do so in the north and northeast, the stronghold of Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party.

“The protesters claim they are fighting corruption and seeking reforms, but this doesn’t justify their use of force and intimidation to block voting,” Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Jan. 28. “Preventing people from casting ballots shows serious contempt for basic rights of voters and democratic principles.”

Troubled Vote

The Election Commission had called on the government to delay the poll, warning the political situation was too tense for the vote to be held peacefully. Yingluck and her advisers said it was not in their power to do so, and the government has accused the commission of trying to undermine the poll.

Suthep’s protesters successfully prevented candidates from registering to contest at least 28 seats in the lower house, meaning that no matter what happens on Feb. 2 the threshold of 475 out of 500 seats for a quorum will not be met and a government can’t be formed.

There will need to be by-elections for the affected seats as well as in areas where advance voting was blocked. The Election Commission has said advance voting for those elections can take place on Feb. 23, though it may be three to four months before parliament will be able to open.

With no new government in place, Yingluck would remain in a caretaker role. Yingluck and her government also face a series of legal challenges to her rule, while police have issued warrants against Suthep related to the recent protests.

Opposition Boycott

Ten people have been killed and 584 injured since the protests began in October. During a meeting with Election Commission officials this week, the government pointed out the commission has the power to order any government personnel to assist, including the military and police, said Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanjana.

“If they perform their duty as effectively as they have the power to, we can expect less problems during the February 2 election” than in advance voting, Pongthep told Bloomberg Television in an interview.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, called for the country to preserve democratic processes. “The Thai people should be as free to exercise their democratic right to vote as to express their right to peaceful protest,” she said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

Yingluck called the elections on Dec. 9, a day after members of the opposition Democrat Party resigned from parliament en masse to join their former colleagues in the protest movement, which began in disapproval of an amnesty bill that would have let the prime minister’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, return from exile.

Thaksin Question

The protesters and Democrats say Yingluck’s government is run from abroad by Thaksin, who was ousted in the 2006 coup and faces a two year jail term for corruption if he returns. The Democrats, who draw from the same support base in Bangkok and the south as the protest movement, are boycotting the poll, saying any election at this time would not be fair because Thaksin bought the loyalty of poor voters while in power.

Thaksin’s political allies, who have won the past five elections, say their popularity is based on solid policies that have improved the lives of millions, particularly people in the north and northeast. The Democrats have not won a national poll since 1992.

The Democrats previously boycotted a ballot in April 2006, when Thaksin was prime minister, on the grounds the political system needed reform. That vote was invalidated when a court found Thaksin’s party guilty of violating election laws. Thaksin was ousted before another election could be held.

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