Despite snap elections on Sunday, Thailand’s two largest political forces remain at a stalemate and with class and ethnic divisions deepening, tensions remain high across the country.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ruling Pheu Thai party was almost guaranteed to win a majority with the opposition Democrats boycotting the vote. They insist on constitutional reforms before participating in any more elections, knowing that otherwise Pheu Thai, which is most popular in the rural north of the country, will stay in power.
Opposition protesters have occupied large parts of Bangkok, the capital, surrounding key government buildings and virtually shutting down the government. Last week, thousands of police forces were deployed in and around Bangkok and a state of emergency was declared after violence had prevented some early voting.
On Saturday, a gunfight broke out when opposition “yellow shirts” blocked access to an administrative building containing ballot boxes. The government later announced that voting would be delayed in the area. Voting was eventually canceled in more than 12 percent of districts around the country, most of them in the south which is the Democrats’ stronghold.
Despite Pheu Thai’s likely victory, it might not be able to form a new government. The opposition refused to contest the elections in at least 28 seats, preventing the ruling party from achieving a quorum in parliament. Thus, the political legitimacy Shinawatra sought by calling snap elections ahead of massive protests appears fleeting. The crisis will continue.
The ultimate arbiter in Thailand remains King Bhumibol Adulyadej. On the throne since 1946, the monarch is 86 years old and said to be ailing. Many Thai believe that his son and likely successor, Maha Vajiralongkorn, will be easily influenced Shinawatra’s brother, the former premier Thaksin, who was deposed in a coup in 2006.
Thaksin is still a polarizing figure in Thai politics. Accused of corruption, vote rigging and of using the military in bloody crackdowns against southern insurgents, the populist leader diverted government spending programs away from the elite and vested interests in Bangkok in favor of rural districts in the north that have traditionally lagged behind the rest of the country. The ruling class harbors deep resentment against him and his family for this reason.
Rice subsidies that were instituted by Yingluck Shinawatra have recently come under investigation with the opposition seeing them as tantamount to bribes for rural voters. What is more, the opposition is firm in believing that Thaksin is really still in control of the government. When Yingluck considered stepping down in early January, it was her brother who convinced her to press on. Another sister is in charge of the Pheu Thai party.
The other major player in this is the army which has so far chosen to remain above the fray. But given its extensive history of coups — it has staged up to twenty since the beginning of the constitutional monarchy in 1932 — there is always the possibility of it deciding to resolve the political impasse on its own. After the last putch in 2006, which ousted Thaksin, it came under withering criticism worldwide. His sister Yingluck was elected in 2011.
The crisis flared up again in October when Pheu Thai proposed to pardon those officers involved in the 2006 coup. An amnesty bill would have also covered those responsible for the crackdowns on Shinawatra’s supporters in 2010 as well as the political reprisals through May 2012.
The opposition, numbering in the tens of thousands, took to the streets, fearing that the bill would mean the return of Thaksin.
The seeming dichotomy of the position held by anti-government protesters, led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, is that they are undermining a democratically-elected government with calls for greater democracy. They argue for a temporary suspension of the Constitution to be replaced by an unelected “people’s council” that would run the country until “fair” elections could be held. Which presumably means elections that the Democrat Party can win.
With an incomplete election, the Constitutional Court will likely step in and annul the result. This could result in more demonstrations and possibly more violence. The only certainty is that Thai politics is in for more of a rough period. Where it ends is anyone’s guess. Or more accurately — when the army or the monarchy decides it has had enough.