If Thailand is to minimise the risk of renewed demonstrations and violence, it needs to ensure that forthcoming elections are free and fair and that a legitimate government is formed without any interference from the elite establishment.
Thailand: The Calm before Another Storm?, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, states that nearly a year after the crackdown on anti-establishment demonstrations, support for the so-called “Red Shirt” movement remains strong and political reconciliation has led almost nowhere. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has announced that general elections will be held no later than July, but there are rumours that a military coup or another form of subtle intervention could derail the polls.
“While elections are not a magic wand, if installed successfully, the new government will have a fresh mandate and greater credibility to try to bring about genuine political reconciliation”, says Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, Crisis Group South East Asia Analyst. “As the stakes are high, the race is likely to be fiercely contested. Domestic, regional, and international monitors and a well-publicised electoral code of conduct could help minimise violence and enhance the credibility of the polls”.
On one side of the struggle is the “yellow-shirted” People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) which backs the elite establishment: the monarchy, the military and the judiciary. On the other side are those allied with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the “red-shirted” United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). The conflict has left Thailand deeply polarised. The UDD demonstration in March-May 2010 killed 92 people – including 21 civilians and five soldiers who died a year ago on 10 April – in the most deadly clashes between protestors and the state in modern Thai history. Despite the crackdown, the Red Shirts remain strong and are now preparing to wage a new battle at the ballot box through their electoral wing – the Pheu Thai Party.
The PAD is opposing the forthcoming polls and urging supporters not to vote for any political parties. The leadership claims elections are useless in “dirty” politics and instead envisions the King appointing a “virtuous” leader who will “clean up” politics. Support for the PAD had declined. Its ultra-nationalist campaign centred on the Preah Vihear temple dispute with Cambodia is drawing smaller numbers than its rallies in 2008. It is now at odds with its former anti-Thaksin ally, the Democrat Party.
In addition to whether the elections are free and fair, how the new government is formed will be critical in determining the post-election political landscape. A coalition government is likely and its formation is expected to be highly contentious. The Red Shirts have threatened to return to the streets in full force if the Pheu Thai Party emerges as the largest party but does not form the government. Though not unconstitutional, the democratic legitimacy of a government formed by the second largest party will be readily challenged. On the other hand, the PAD and traditional elites would oppose a “proxy” Thaksin government.
“It will still be a challenge for all sides to accept election results. But arm bending by the royalist establishment is an obvious recipe for renewed street protests and violence”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group South East Asia Project Director. “Thailand is likely to face continuing mass protests, which have become increasingly violent, until the royalist establishment and elected leaders agree on a new social contract on power sharing as well as the place of traditional elites in a democratic country”.