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Polls not likely to solve Thai crisis

Publication Date : 10-12-2013


Thailand is slated for early elections after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved Parliament on Monday, in response to massive street protests seeking to overthrow her administration.

On paper, the polls will be held on February 2. But there is still a chance they may not happen, say analysts.

The protesters, who call themselves the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), have consistently rejected the idea of fresh elections because Yingluck's Puea Thai party would almost certainly win again.

Puea Thai is backed by Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed as prime minister in a 2006 coup after mass protests similar to yesterday's. He is seen as controlling the government from abroad, where he lives to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.

The PDRC wants to rid Thailand of the "Thaksin regime" and has called instead for a "people's council" to be set up to reform the country's political structure before elections are held.

Meanwhile, the opposition Democrats may boycott the polls. The party, which has not won an election since 1992, is closely aligned to the ongoing protests. All its MPs have resigned to take part in and lead the protests. Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva remained non-committal when asked by the media if the party intended to contest the election.

The absence of an opposition would delegitimise a Puea Thai electoral victory, said Chulalongkorn University political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn.

Negotiations on power sharing are likely taking place behind the scenes, noted Associate Professor Panitan. If they fail, the PDRC might set up its people's council any way and continue sending protesters to surround ministries and cripple government services.

In this scenario, the protests, which began in late October and have claimed five lives so far, will likely drag on.

Thammasat University political scientist Prajak Kongkirati expects the more extreme anti-government groups to try and prevent an election from taking place at all, to create a political vacuum. That would make it easier for an unelected body like the people's council to take over.

However, these groups will have to contend with Puea Thai's "red shirt" supporters, who draw their strength from the rural masses outside of Bangkok, and can mobilise tens of thousands of people to rally in the capital at short notice.

These red shirts descended on the retail heart of Bangkok in 2010 while trying to pressure the then Democrat government to call for fresh elections. A military crackdown subsequently led to more than 90 deaths.

The creation of a people's council would lead to massive protests from the red shirts, with violent clashes likely, said Dr Prajak. That would force the military - which has stayed neutral so far in this conflict - to intervene.

For now, Thailand is on tenterhooks.

"It will be a very tense time and could easily slip into anarchy and violence," said Prajak. "If Thailand fails to hold this election, it will be the start of a civil war which everybody fears."


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