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Thai Poll Raises New Questions

Prepared by: Esther Pan
Updated: April 4, 2006


Thaksin Shinawatra has declared victory in national elections but in a concession to the opposition, the embattled prime minister agreed to establish a reconciliation committee to determine whether he is fit to rule (Al-Jazeera). Shinawatra, who called for the snap elections in the face of mass protests demanding his ouster, saw strong losses in Bangkok and other regions, leading to a political impasse (BBC). Candidates failed to gain the 20 percent of the vote required to take a parliamentary seat in nearly forty of the country’s constituencies, and the significant number of  “no” votes and abstentions cast doubt on the election’s legitimacy.

Shinawatra, who was elected to a second term in a landslide just last year, called early elections after a storm of protests erupted in January (Economist) over his family's sale of its telecommunications company to a Singapore government corporation. The deal, which netted the Shinawatra family $1.9 billion tax-free, was not technically illegal but infuriated the Thai middle class, which has accused Thaksin of abusing his post for personal gain. The political situation leading up to the elections is explored in this CFR Background Q&A.

The opposition People's Alliance for Democracy boycotted the elections, staged near-daily protests, and called daily for Thaksin to resign (Xinhua). There has been resistance from other parts of society, as well. The Thai Supreme Administrative Court ruled March 25 that Thaksin's plans to sell off a quarter of the nationalized electricity monopoly showed conflicts of interest and would have created unfair competition (Asia Times). Critics say Shinawatra subverted civil society groups, paid for votes in rural areas, and condoned brutality in his crackdowns on the drug trade and an ongoing Muslim insurgency in the south. The International Crisis Group in this report calls on the Thai government to revise its response to the insurgency or face the prospect of it spreading. But the prime minister still enjoys strong support from the rural poor in the country's north and northeast, who credit him with drastically cutting poverty, improving the economy, and raising their living standards (VOA).

The Bangkok Post says Shinawatra has no one to blame but himself for his current precarious position. Thailand's the Nation says even if Thaksin wins Sunday's vote, his lack of ethics has lost him legitimacy. And financial consultant Jephraim Gundzik writes in the Asia Times that Thailand's ongoing political turmoil will hurt its economy and investment prospects.

Many are looking to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a revered figure, to solve the political crisis. He has stepped into volatile situations in the past, and could do so again. But Japan's Asahi Shimbun says Thailand, one of the first democratic countries in Asia, cannot continue relying on the king to solve its intractable political problems.

The report from an Asia Foundation conference on U.S.-Thailand relations in the twenty-first century explores the history of the ties between the two countries and says that, while anti-American sentiment is on the rise in Thailand, the two countries can work together (PDF) on issues including fighting the drug trade and the war on terror, combating human trafficking, and reducing the HIV/AIDS infection rate.

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