Changes to Thai electoral rules may help PM’s side – Sydney Morning Herald

http://www.smh.com.au/world/changes-to-thai-electoral-rules-may-help-pms-side-20110218-1azlm.html

Simon Roughneen in BANGKOK – Nine months after the Siege of Bangkok, Thailand continues to struggle with competing colour-coded political factions, against a backdrop of court-endorsed controls on freedom of expression.

Yellowshirts camped-out near Thailand's seat of Government in Bangkok (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The past two weekends, separate red and yellow-shirted demonstrations took place in Bangkok, highlighting the fractious, yet vibrant, nature of political debate in Thailand. Recent history shows that vibrant can easily spill over into violent, and Thailand remains divided. On Thursday Prime Minister Abisit Vejjajiva confirmed he would call an early general election, before the end of June.

As the country’s political classes, wrestle for control, two recent high profile court cases have thrown a spotlight on Thailand’s onerous lese majeste laws, that relate to offending the Thai king.

Daranee Chanchoengsilpakul, who goes by the nom de guerre Da Torpedo, was “pleasantly surprised” at the recent ruling, that her conviction for lese-majeste, or offending the Thai King, came as a result of a mistrial.

The charge related to speeches she made at redshirt rallies in 2008, when a pro-redshirt party was in power. Now the redshirts are an extra-parliamentary opposition, and their backer, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, stands accused of corruption while in office. In a second high profile case, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, head of the news website Prachatai, (which is nominated for a major Thai media award to be announced this weekend) is on trial. Chiranuch was not accused of writing or saying anything defamatory herself, the case against her relates to comments posted by third parties on the Prachatai web board. Ten such posts allegedly defamed the Thai monarchy. State prosecutors are making the case that webmasters are liable for comments posted by third parties. The trial has been postponed until September.

By that time, Thailand will have been to the polls and could have a new Government.

However, the poll announcement only came after the Thai Parliament voted to amend the electoral format, expanding the party list representation in parliament and moving the remaining constituency seats from multi-seat to single seat format.

According to Chris Baker, a respected Bangkok-based analyst, the amended system could boost Abhisit’s Democrats, the lead party in the current governing coalition, but which has been comfortably beaten by pro-Thaksin parties in recent elections.

He said that “the Democrats did much better last time on the party list than the territorial constituencies. Shifting seats from territorial to party list should favour them.”

Abhisit is under pressure not just from the redshirt side, but also from the anti-Thaksin yellowshirts, a group that helped propel him to power in late 2008. The yellow shirts accuse the PM of being soft on Cambodia, and a border dispute between the two countries turned violent in recent weeks.

The yellowshirts have a political party of their own, which could conceivably take votes away from Abhisit’s Democrats in the coming election.

In an attempt to heal the wounds from last year’s violence, Abhisit’s Government launched two reform and reconciliation bodies. All told, however, Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul sees the reconciliation measures as insufficient. “All the ‘reform’ issues they have mentioned – education, media, tackling disparity and inequality – avoid the most critical issue for reconciliation, namely the political system”, he said.

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