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Bangkok fraught with uncertainty as polls loom

Publication Date : 31-01-2014


Thailand's general election takes place this weekend but Bangkok does not look the part.

Key intersections in the capital are barricaded with sandbags and rubber tyres. Government buildings have been hollowed out by protesters intimidating civil servants into stopping work.

Normally laid-back shopping mall security guards check the contents of every customer's bag.

This is not an election that many people in Bangkok and southern Thailand want. For the past three months, they have tried to remove caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as well as their entire clan, from Thailand's political scene.

As her Puea Thai party is expected to win the polls, the protesters have blocked the registration of candidates, hampered ballot paper delivery and surrounded polling stations during advance voting to deter voters. They want reforms like decentralisation of political power before polls.

In the meantime, Bangkok, a city on edge, is also starting to fray at its edges. The foreign ministry, which can normally process close to 7,000 passports every day, is accumulating a daily backlog of about 4,000 passports because of the blockade at Government Complex. The city's normally gridlocked streets are further choked with commuters trying to avoid the blockades.

Blood is spilled almost every other day - in the form of fights, shootings or bombings. Protesters allege that these are state-sponsored acts of violence and make increasing reference to hired "Cambodian" gunmen. Pro-government factions counter that this is a conspiracy to invite military intervention.

But the military has so far stayed on the sidelines. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has openly warned the government against cracking down on protesters. It is probably a needless reminder given how the police, wary of giving the military any pretext for launching a coup, have shown so much restraint they have appeared ineffectual.

When Thailand conducted advance voting on Sunday, only 151,000 out of 2.22 million registered voters cast their ballots. But it is not known if those who failed to vote supported protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban's cause or because they were blocked, intimidated or simply felt their vote would be wasted as the political crisis - which has already claimed 11 lives - nears its fourth month.

The election commission says another 48.8 million people are scheduled to vote on Sunday.Whatever the turnout, the election will not solve Thailand's woes and is likely to worsen the conflict.

Dr Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says: "February 2 is just the time after which the current crisis will be much more intensive."

Analysts say while Thaksin-affiliated parties have won every single poll since his ouster in a 2006 military coup, the victories are not legitimate in the eyes of his opponents.

Instead, they charge that Thaksin, despite being in self-exile to evade a sentence for corruption, continues to be a menace. His network has subverted the electoral process, they say, through populist policies that appeal to "uneducated" rural voters while bleeding the country dry.

Even if Puea Thai wins the most seats on February 2, more headaches rather than celebrations await.

Protest blockades have created 28 vacant constituencies so the polls will not be able to elect enough people to fill the required 95 per cent of Lower House seats to open a new session.

Also, many Puea Thai candidates are under probe by the national anti-graft agency, a development that could turn fatal for the party. Yingluck herself is facing a separate probe by the same unit. Forming a new party and calling for more elections will only prolong the agony.

Observers say underlying the sound and fury over the electoral process is a longer-term tussle for resources between an emerging middle class outside Bangkok and the established middle class of the Thai capital, which still gets a disproportionately large share of government expenditure.

Less openly mentioned is the discreet power play among elites in the knowledge that a royal succession looms. The revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej intervened in past political struggles but the 86-year-old ailing monarch has not directly commented on the current conflict.

Meanwhile, many in the anti- government movement like protest leader Atthapol Arunoros openly admit to hoping for military intervention.

He tells The Straits Times: "If the military does not come out, this will be very difficult to resolve."


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