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Thai polls will not resolve deep divisions

Publication Date : 24-12-2013


Thailand's February 2 election will be more fraught than previous ones, analysts say, and will do little if anything to resolve deep and increasingly bitter political divisions in Thailand.

When the Democrat Party last boycotted elections in 2006, it did not obstruct the registration of candidates or voting at polling stations. This time, however, the self-styled People's Democratic Reform Council, in effect the street politics wing of the Democrats, has tried to obstruct the registration and said it will not allow the election to take place.

Attempts to prevent officials from holding elections or to block people from voting could be met by violence from supporters of the ruling Puea Thai party.

"This election campaign will be violent," predicted political science professor Pitch Pongsawat from Chulalongkorn University. "The question is, can the Election Commission function properly? It is very difficult to control violence at the local level."

If the election goes ahead, the Puea Thai will likely win again - like it did in 2011, when it grabbed 265 of the 500 seats in Parliament.

In terms of votes, it outstripped the opposition Democrat Party by around four million.

Enduring regional differences paint a picture of dangerous geographic polarisation.

The ruling Puea Thai party is very strong in Thailand's north-east and across the upper north, while the Democrats dominate the south.

In the lower north and Bangkok, the two are split roughly half and half, although the capital usually favours the Democrats. But winning in Bangkok, the south and part of central Thailand alone cannot deliver Parliament.

The northeast has the biggest footprint in Parliament, accounting for 126 seats. Since 2007, the area has recorded higher growth than any other region, which is likely to cement loyalty to Puea Thai.

Yet, the ruling party stands on shaky ground elsewhere. Given the Democrat Party's boycott, candidates who win in pro-Democrat areas may still end up with fewer votes than the "no vote" tally, leaving them as lame ducks.

According to Thai election laws, a candidate who wins unopposed must get a minimum number of votes to be declared a winner. If the candidate cannot hit the minimum, by-elections will be held.

A successful election will go down well with the international community, and a win for Puea Thai will give the party the renewed mandate it seeks.

But millions of mostly Bangkok-based Thais have shown that they reject the electoral system in recent weeks.

Protesters who have been marching in Bangkok see Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as a front for her older brother Thaksin Shinawatra, whom they regard as corrupt and bent on eroding the influence of the monarchy.

Army chief Prayuth Chanocha had warned last week: "We must not look at the situation in Bangkok alone, but see what is happening in the provinces as well."

The political division runs through all tambons, or sub-districts, and "the situation could trigger a civil war", he added.

A Bangkok Post editorial on Monday said General Prayuth's remarks were "distressing... but it is unfortunately true that even when it seems things can't get worse, they can". Pitch sees the February 2 election as only a tap on the brakes as Thailand continues to slide deeper into uncharted waters.

"Everybody is pushing the situation towards extremes."


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