Thai Prime Minster Abhisit Vejajjiva will announce details of Thailand’s parliamentary elections later today, with a July 3 mooted as voting day after Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed the dissolution of the country’s parliament, which takes effect tomorrow. By law, the elections do not have to be held until the end of 2011, though an offer was made a year ago by Abhisit to hold a vote in October 2010. Early or late, Thailand’s parliamentary elections could offer a way out of the country’s five-year old cycle of protests and violence, or they could open a new chapter of division.
Last week Human Rights Watch published a report on Thailand’s 2010 protests, which resulted in 91 people being killed, most of them civilians. HRW slated the Thai Government and Thai Army for inappropriate and excessive use of force in the report, while dismissing the redshirt protestor’s claims that their demonstration was peaceful, and saying that armed ‘blackshirt’ paramilitaries instigated street fighting on April 10 2010 as the Thai Army sought to remove protestors from the streets around Bangkok’s Democracy Monument.
“There are so many people in denial on both sides” said Brad Adams, Executive Director for HRW Asia, speaking at the report launch in Bangkok on May 3. Urging transparent investigations into all of the killings during the protests, Adams refuted claims “that Thais want to forget and put the past behind them”, saying that “people in Thailand want justice like anyone else.”
It is possible that Abhisit and his Democrat Party want an election win to offset one the main criticisms made by opposition politicians in the Peua Thai party, as well as claims made by protest leaders during the March-May 2010 redshirt demonstration in Bangkok. They say that Abhisit’s Government came to power after legal sleight-of-hand and behind-the-scenes dealings saw the banning of redshirt-aligned MPs and the defection of coalition partners, enabling the Democrats to form a coalition Government in late 2008.
Redshirt backer and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a coup in September 2006, and despite some attempts by opposition parliamentarians and redshirts to put clear water between themselves and Thaksin, his youngest sister Yingluck Shinawatra looks like being the opposition figurehead going into the poll, and messages from Thaksin are appearing on opposition posters and advertisements.
The pre-election period has been overshadowed by concerns about freedom of speech, with 13 redshirt-aligned radio stations closed down recently, apparently for broadcasting a speech that allegedly insulted the Thai monarchy, a criminal offence under the country’s legal system. The Thai Army has taken on a more assertive public stance in recent weeks, warning politicians not to discuss the country’s monarchy during the election campaign, just prior to getting embroiled in a second round of deadly border fighting this year with the Cambodian Army.
Less-discussed perhaps, is Thailand’s seven year old insurgency in the country’s ‘Deep South’, in the the three mainly Muslim and ethnic Malay-populated provinces bordering Malaysia. Tony Davis, an analyst for security consultancy Janes, said that for most Thais the southern conflict “remains a sideshow”, despite 4,600 deaths since 2004 and the continued deployment of around 100000 soldiers and other security personnel in the tiny region.
The anti-Thaksin, self-styled royalist yellowshirt protestors returned to the streets of Bangkok earlier in 2011, albeit in much-reduced numbers from their late 2008 heyday, when they occupied Bangkok’s Government House and later the country’s main airports, prior to Abhisit becoming PM. Those 2008 protests were initially undertaken on the pretext that the then Government was soft on territorial sovereignty after UNESCO deemed Preah Vihear -one of the temples at the centre of the recent Thailand-Cambodia border fighting – to be a world heritage site.
While seen as pro-Abhisit, at least until recently, the yellowshirts, who seek a five year appointed Government and the cancellation of elections, criticised the current Government’s handling of the Cambodia border issue, but have not been concerned about the southern violence, despite the insurgents’ sourcing of cross-border logistical and financial support from inside Malaysia.
The yellowshirts seem unlikely to have any direct electoral impact, however, in what could be a tight contest. Puea Thai’s internal polls tell it that it could win more than 260 seats, meaning it could form a Government without needing support from other parties. However, other surveys show a tighter contest, but with Puea Thai still likely to emerge as the biggest party, but short of a majority. One poll shows that one-third of voters remain undecided, however. The Democrats have not won an election since 1992, and on each of the previous four times Thailand has gone to the polls, parties headed by or linked to Thaksin have won, sometimes decisively.
Abhisit says that he hopes the election will contribute to political stability in Thailand, and boost the country’s appeal as an investment destination and rising middle-income economy. Thailand’s economy grew by 8% in 2010, despite political instability causing a downturn the country’s important tourism sector, which makes up around 6% of GDP.
Before dissolving parliament, Abhisit secured approval for around 100 billion baht in public spending – drawing criticism from Puea Thai, which labelled the outlay as vote-buying, though Thaksin promised higher social spending if Peua Thai wins, pledging a 40% minimum wage increase, while Abhisit promised a 25% jump.