Thailand heads to the polls on 3 July to elect its next government. With the political system weakened by years of extra-parliamentary interventions, rampant corruption and political instability, the country remains deeply divided. Rather than resolving the political conflict, the election is likely to lead to further confrontations, be they in Parliament, in the streets or through military intervention.
The opposition Puea Thai party, backed by exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and led by his telegenic 44-year-old sister, Yingluck, is tipped to win the polls. Yingluck, a political novice, burst onto the political scene less than two months ago and has blown her more experienced political rivals out of the water with a well-managed, media savvy campaign, and could become Thailand's first elected female leader.
Despite a coup, a new constitution and the banning of successive Thaksin-backed political parties by a powerful establishment, the exiled former prime minister’s political juggernaut is resurgent, ever-emboldened by an increasingly organised and indignant support base. As the conflict has endured it has grown in scope, laying bare deep political fissures in a country that was once seen as a beacon for democracy amongst authoritarian neighbours.
Thaksin’s parties have won all elections since the 2006 coup that ousted his government. But machinations by a politicised judiciary and a powerful military have continually sought to ensure that pro-Thaksin parties are kept from power at all costs – leading to a breakdown in the democratic process and a mass protest movement which culminated in May last year with the deaths of at least 90 people when the military cracked down on anti-government “Red Shirt” protests in Bangkok.
The main political rival to Thaksin and Puea Thai is the incumbent Democrat Party. With support largely among the establishment and middle classes, the Democrats have sought to position themselves as the defenders of stability, warning that voting for a pro-Thaksin party will only lead to further instability and conflict. However, despite having the support of the military-backed royalist establishment, the Democrats, led by Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, have failed to win a single election since the 2006 coup. In fact, the party has not won an election since 1992. Nevertheless, the Democrats were able, with military backing, to cobble together a coalition government two years ago after the ruling pro-Thaksin party was dissolved for election fraud.
Despite Puea Thai looking like it will win the most votes, analysts predict the election is likely to deliver another hung Parliament. If that is the case, the Democrats may again be able to pull together a coalition – something that is likely to further inflame Puea Thai’s increasingly bellicose Red Shirt supporters. If Puea Thai manages to win a majority, however, then renewed street protest by the ultra right-wing “Yellow Shirts” (led by Sondhi Limthongkul’s People’s Alliance for Democracy) are likely. In such a scenario, military intervention in a country that has seen 18 coups or attempted coups since 1932 cannot be ruled out.
The People’s Alliance for Democracy is campaigning for people to vote for “none of the above” in the election, arguing that all the candidates are unfit to rule and an appointed national government is required to purge the political system of all its corruptions. Whatever the outcome of the election – Democrat-led coalition, Puea Thai-led coalition or single-party government for either party – the chances for political stability remain unconvincing.
The issues that underlie this growing political divide run deep and are inextricably linked to the ailing health of the country’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, concerns over succession, and accusations that the military and other powerful “establishment” figures around the palace are exploiting the monarchy for their own purposes. These highly emotive concerns remain pivotal to overcoming Thailand’s political decay but are rarely addressed openly. The misuse of harsh 'lèse-majesté' laws and other efforts to enforce a culture of self-censorship prevent these crucial issues from being discussed.
The need for change and the role of civil society
Thailand, many argue, is slipping backwards into repression and authoritarianism: over 540,000 websites have been blocked by the Democrat-led government over the past 15 months, according to Freedom Against Censorship Thailand; the kingdom is now ranked 153 out of 178 countries in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index and the military budget since the coup has more than doubled to $5.5 billion. There has been a surge in lèse-majesté allegations since the 2006 coup. From 1993 to 2004, the average number of new cases of lèse-majesté dropped by half, with no cases at all in 2002. But in 2009, the last year for which reliable statistics are available, 164 cases were sent to the Court of First Instance, a record high.
While open discussion of the underlying issues remains taboo, debate over the use of lèse-majesté and the growing threats to free speech and other democratic norms is gathering momentum. This has led to the Red Shirts being labelled anti-monarchists – a highly emotive charge. However, the other fear is that a Puea Thai victory could lead to the whitewashing and return of divisive former Prime Minister Thaksin – a scenario that also would likely lead to further instability and renewed conflict. With the issues at stake clearly complicated and deep-rooted grievances on both sides, it is difficult to see how this conflict can be resolved.
It is within this volatile and complex arena that local peacebuilders are looking to promote open discussion of the fundamental issues in a bid to prevent further violence and help the country attain the stability it desires. But neutral actors remain few and far between. Most of the open discussion remains limited to academic forums that are themselves beholden to existing power structures. There is a dearth of neutral bodies capable of mediating and helping bridge the ever-widening divide that threatens to keep Thailand in a state of political upheaval for many years to come.
If Thailand is to come through these testing times without the scars of ever-more serious bloodshed and tyranny, then open dialogue that allows for frank discussion of these concerns is crucial. A middle voice must begin to make itself heard. The development of a united vision for the country is vital. For now though, it is crucial that for the millions of voters expected to turn out for Sunday’s election, they feel their voices have been listened to and they can place their faith in the rule of law and parliamentary democracy. If that is not achieved, then further street protests, violent conflict and military intervention are all possible.