Uncertainty ahead of polls in Thailand

April 28, 2011 - 0:0

BANGKOK (Reuters) -- When television broadcasters suddenly went off the air in Thailand recently, many people thought it could only mean one thing: the start of a military coup.

Authorities were quick to assure the public the three-hour blackout on April 21 was the result of a faulty satellite, not a putsch.
But the coup speculation in a country that has seen 18 military takeovers since the 1930s illustrates the depth of uncertainty ahead of elections in late June or early July.
The odds favor the Democrat Party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in the coming poll. But he’s unlikely to win by a comfortable margin. And regardless of who prevails, neither side may respect the result.
If Abhisit loses, his royalist and military backers are unlikely to give way quietly, possibly using judicial intervention or a coup to restore the status quo.
But if he wins, the red-shirted supporters of his political nemesis, self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, could take to the streets in a new wave of anti-government protests.
Siripan Noksuan, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said Thailand’s five-year political crisis could intensify if Abhisit fails and the Thaksin-allied opposition Puea Thai Party wins.
“If Puea Thai manages to form a government, against all odds, there would likely be a coup,” she said. “If there is another coup, it will be a big turning point for Thailand. The resistance will be strong and would likely bring bloodshed.”
The poll is 46-year-old Abhisit’s first popular test, giving him a chance to answer accusations he came to power illegitimately in 2008 when a court dissolved the ruling pro-Thaksin party and the military helped to piece together his coalition.
His party has not won an election in nearly two decades and the British-born, Oxford-educated premier has always struggled to connect with Thailand’s working-class masses.
But several factors are in his favor: the opposition is in disarray, Thailand’s economy -Southeast Asia’s second largest - is performing strongly, and Abhisit has rolled out a raft of populist politico- economic policies and subsidies targeting the poor, the vast majority of voters.
Strategies to convince voters
His campaign staff says his strategy is to convince voters Thailand should look ahead rather than dwell on its troubled past, especially the weeks of unrest last year in which 91 people were killed, Bangkok paralyzed and the government was nearly felled.
His victory could give Thailand a rare dose of policy continuity after four changes of government since 2006.
That’s encouraging for investors eager for a continuation of the status quo following a 41% rise in Thai stock prices last year. Stocks and the baht currency are up again this year.
But Abhisit is unlikely to win decisively. That means Thailand can expect another coalition government and more back-room deals with shady figures in smaller parties, a recipe for corruption.
“That is really what is pulling this government back, this kind of coalition government that relies on appeasing demands of smaller parties and giving them control of the Commerce Ministry, Political Ministry and various other important ministries,” said Danny Richards, Southeast Asia specialist at the Intelligence Unit.
“It really undermines the quality of policymaking. It is unlikely to change,” he said.
Although the mostly working-class red shirts say they will honor the outcome, any perception of foul play or behind-the-scenes interference could trigger an ugly backlash.
The opposition has launched its campaign with the slogan: “Thaksin Thinks, Puea Thai Acts”, hoping to tap the popularity of the 61-year-old ethnic-Chinese telecommunications tycoon whose party was the first and only one in Thai history to win two landslide elections before he was toppled in a 2006 coup.
He was later convicted of breaching conflict-of-interest laws and sentenced in absentia to two years in prison.
But he is still idolized by many rural and urban working-class voters, a figurehead and assumed financier of the red shirt protesters who occupied swathes of Bangkok for nine weeks last year and battled troops in clashes that killed 91 people.
From his villa in Dubai, he is effectively running the opposition, mostly through webcam teleconferences.
Still, his party is in disarray and has no clear candidate for prime minister. Most reckon his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, would be in line for the job.
Internal power struggles that pit pro-Thaksin parliamentarians against red shirt protest leaders have driven at least 10 of the parliamentarians to defect this year, fuelling speculation more could leave for other parties as the poll draws closer.
The party has also been on the defensive over accusations by the military that anti-monarchy comments were made from the stage of a red shirt protest that drew 40,000 supporters on April 10, a serious charge in a country with the world’s toughest laws and where 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is widely revered