Thailand Election Preview

As Thailand heads into snap elections April 2, embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra tries to fend off protests from opposition groups who charge him with autocratic governance and corrupt business dealings.

March 31, 2006, 7:00 am (EST)

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Thailand could be on the brink of political turmoil as a coalition of opposition groups tries to force Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra out of office. They accuse him of cronyism, corruption, and hardline crackdowns on civil society, democratic watchdog groups, and the Muslim south. However, Thaksin still enjoys tremendous support from his base in poor rural areas and looks unwilling to leave his post without a fight. He has called parliamentary elections in the hopes of reaffirming his mandate, but some experts say the country could be in for a period of political turbulence.

What is at stake in Thailand’s upcoming parliamentary elections?

Embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications billionaire-turned-politician who has been in office since 2001, is fighting to stay in power after months of protests led by an opposition coalition, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). PAD—made up of the Democrat, Chat Thai, and Mahachon parties—accuse Thaksin of stifling the press, suppressing civil society, consolidating power, and using his post to enrich his family and cronies. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets of Bangkok throughout February to call for Thaksin’s ouster. In response, Thaksin dissolved parliament and called snap elections for April 2, three years earlier than scheduled.

Opposition groups are boycotting the elections, claiming they are unfair and come too soon after the 2005 poll, which saw Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party take a commanding majority in parliament. As a result of the boycott, TRT candidates are running unopposed in 70 percent of Thailand’s districts. Opposition leaders are threatening to challenge the election results, and the protests may continue, with the specter of violence looming. Experts say the current situation is unprecedented. "Thai governments have fallen, but never before have they tried to oust a democratically-elected prime minister who holds three-quarters of the parliamentary seats," says John Brandon, a Southeast Asia expert and director of international relations at the Asia Foundation. "What happens in the next few weeks could determine the future of democracy in Thailand," says Donald Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asian Forum at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

What set off the protests?

In January, the Shinawatra’s family sold its stake in the family-owned Shin Corporation, Thailand’s biggest mobile phone provider, to Temasek Holdings, the investment arm of the Singapore government. The family also managed to avoid paying taxes on the deal, which netted it $1.9 billion. The transaction outraged many Thais, who claimed strategic national assets were being sold to foreigners for the personal benefit of Thaksin and his cronies. "[The sale] wasn’t illegal, but it was highly unethical," Brandon says. The controversial sale galvanized the opposition, which organized the rallies calling for Thaksin’s ouster. Opposition leaders say they want to restore democracy by boycotting what they call rigged elections and ending Thaksin’s rule. "We are boycotting to stop a government that betrays and steals from its people under the guise of democracy," Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters March 2. "Thaksin has turned democracy into a license for corruption and violations of rights."

Who opposes Thaksin?

Members of the educated middle class elite, centered in Bangkok, resent Thaksin’s usurping of its traditional leadership role in the country. Experts say they see Thaksin as a crass businessman who has set back democracy, and oppose him ferociously. "It’s almost personal, a style thing," Emmerson says. Most urban areas in the provinces, with the exception of Chiang Mai, have also turned against Thaksin, says James Klein, Thailand country representative for the Asia Foundation. Leaders of the protest movement include former Thaksin supporter and media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, and Chamlong Srimuang, a former general and Buddhist leader who once mentored Thaksin. Srimuang, who is widely respected for his role in the popular uprising that brought down the military government in 1992, heads the "Dharma army," a group of influential, nonviolent monks and nuns who have attended some protests.

In addition, the crowds protesting Thaksin have included students, workers, and critics who contend he has stifled civil society and eroded democratic freedoms. They say Thaksin has systematically dismantled protections written into the constitution by giving family members and cronies official positions and buying off or intimidating the media. The TRT party is also accused of ignoring election watchdog groups and buying votes in rural areas.

Who supports him?

The rural poor, particularly in the country’s north and northeast. Thaksin became the champion of this group, which had been neglected or ignored outright by the traditional political elites, by pushing policies like a clampdown on the drug trade, subsidized health care, and poverty-reduction programs that have flooded rural areas with investment and lifted incomes in some of Thailand’s poorest regions. Poverty in Thailand fell from 21.3 percent in 2000 to 11.3 percent in 2004, and farming incomes in the northeast rose 40 percent in the same time period, according to the World Bank. "Thaksin’s very popular with the rural areas because he’s honored all of his campaign pledges," Brandon says. "He’s seen as a man of his word, and a highly successful person who’s looking out for the little guy." Support from the rural poor gave the TRT a commanding 377-seat majority in the 500-seat parliament in last year’s elections.

How does Thai election law work?

Thailand has a parliamentary government headed by a prime minister. Of the 500 seats in parliament, 100 are given to candidates elected off party lists. The other 400 are selected by direct election. Thailand’s 1997 constitution mandates that all 500 seats must be filled for the parliament to be considered legitimate. And while candidates may run unopposed, no candidate may be seated without winning at least 20 percent of the registered vote. Several TRT candidates running in Bangkok or in the Muslim south—where Thaksin gave himself sweeping emergency powers to brutally crack down on a Muslim insurgency—are not expected to gain the requisite 20 percent, potentially embroiling the government in constitutional uncertainty. "What you’ll have is a chunk of seats that cannot be filled, so I don’t see how the April 2 vote will resolve the difficulties facing the country," Brandon says. Emmerson agrees. "All accounts suggest the elections will be unconstitutional, which will only lead to a worse political crisis than there is right now," he says. Klein says the April 2 elections "will end in a stalemate that will make it impossible to form a new government under Thaksin or anyone else," except through royal intervention.

What is the role of the king?

Thailand, which traces its founding to 1238, has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has held the throne since 1946, is a figure of great moral authority and is revered by the people. He has used his stature and popularity in the past to resolve political crises that have threatened national stability, such as helping to quell the violent street protests that brought down military governments in 1992 and 1973. Under Article 7 of the Thai constitution, the king has the power to dismiss a prime minister and appoint a replacement during times of national crisis. Thaksin has stated that he will resign at "a whisper" from the king, who has thus far stayed out of the political crisis. "The king is the nonpartisan arbiter of last resort," Emmerson says. "The fulcrum of Thai politics at the moment is in the palace." The king hasn’t spoken out up to now because "he wants to see the democratic process resolve the situation," Brandon says.

What happens next?

A number of scenarios are possible, experts say. The king could postpone the elections or summon Thaksin to the palace for praise or a reprimand. Support or censure from the king would seal the prime minister’s political fate. Or, if the elections are held, the TRT will almost certainly win overwhelmingly, opposition leaders will contest the results, protests will continue, and street protests could turn violent. Or the elections could be held with opposition parties participating, in which case Thaksin could claim his nearly inevitable victory as a mandate from the people. The ensuing political wrangling could scare off investors, damage Thailand’s economic prospects, and cause a recession. But the "political turmoil will have very little impact on the economy in comparison to the impact of macroeconomic mismanagement, poorly managed populist policies, and rampant corruption," Klein says.

Or the whole thing could peter out. There are a few signs that after months of street protests—and their attendant traffic jams—support for the opposition could be waning. "The declining popularity of the opposition in Bangkok itself is an interesting development," Emmerson says. "It’s brinkmanship. It’s possible the opposition could pull back." Some observers warn that the elections could help Thaksin consolidate power and bury Thailand’s fragile system of checks and balances for good. "The ongoing political brinksmanship threatens to allow Thaksin to seize total control of parliament, including majority rule over the Democrats’ historic stronghold in the south," write columnist Dylan Williams in the Asia Times. In that case, Emmerson says, "We could be in for a prolonged mess."

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