Thailand enters calm before election storm


Political campaigning in Thailand drew to a close on Saturday, taking a day to cool off before an election which could exacerbate the country’s six-year-old political crisis just as easily as end it. Opinion polls point to a win by the opposition Puea Thai (For Thais) party led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, over the Democrat Party of Prime
Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Thaksin, who lives in self-appointed exile in Dubai after being ousted by the military in 2006, looms large over the election, popular with the red shirts supporters of Puea Thai and hated by the Democrat elite who want him to stand trial for corruption.
The risk of turbulence lies in the margin of a Puea Thai win and the reaction of the red shirts, mostly rural and urban poor whose protests last year prompted a bloody crackdown. Key as well will be the response of the military, which has a history of intervening in Thai politics.
“It’s almost certain the Puea Thai will win, the question is by how much,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. If they win by a landslide, it would be a “slap in the face” of the Democrats, but would likely rile the military which has a record of launching coups when riled, he said.
Yingluck told reporters on Saturday she was confident Puea Thai would win more than 250 seats, an outright majority, while Abhisit appealed to supporters to give the Democrats the same margin of victory. “What we would like to see is a clean and fair election,”
Yingluck said, adding that it was premature to talk about a coalition with any other party.
It also is possible the Puea Thai party has reached a deal with the military — allowing them to rule in return for not pursuing the generals responsible for last year’s violence, which killed 91 people, mostly red shirts.
If the margin of the win is small, Puea Thai would have to garner the support of smaller parties. Their backing could be contingent on Thaksin serving jail time for corruption as part of any plan to bring him back from self-exile in Dubai. There also is the possibility of the Democrats teaming up with smaller parties to get the necessary majority, an outcome sure to bring the red shirts back out on to the streets.
At a stadium packed with about 20,000 people, many under umbrellas in driving rain, Yingluck on Friday called for reconciliation and promised a probe of last year’s violence. “If only you give this woman a chance to serve you,” she said.
Abhisit warned about 15,000 voters not to believe her. “They say they will move Thailand forward, but I don’t believe they will do so on your behalf,” he said, before assuring supporters he would heal rifts in Thai society. Amnesty International called on whoever wins to end repression, unlawful use of lethal force and intimidation of peaceful dissidents.
Election days in Thailand are traditionally dry affairs, with alcohol sales banned from 6 pm on Saturday to midnight on Sunday and the go-go bars closed.
A spoof Web site called “Not the Nation” wondered how the city’s foreigners would cope, and whether Thai police were bracing for a weekend of violence from “angry, sober, alcoholic expatriates”.