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Thailand in the grip of polls dilemma

Publication Date : 16-12-2013


Thailand is edging towards a watershed which could calm the ongoing political crisis or exacerbate it as the February 2 elections loom, politicians and observers said.

"Under the Constitution, an election must be held 60 days after dissolving the House. It is not up to us, it is under the Constitution," said Chaturon Chaisang, a Cabinet minister from the ruling Puea Thai party.

He was speaking to The Straits Times on Sunday at a party forum to discuss calls for reform from hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters who have been on the streets for weeks - though the numbers have fallen recently.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament on December 9. Her government has stayed on as a caretaker one.

Asean on Sunday called on all parties concerned to resolve the protests peacefully through dialogue. In a statement posted on the website of the Brunei Foreign Ministry, it said political stability in Thailand was essential to achieving a "peaceful, stable and prosperous Asean community". Brunei is the current Asean chair.

Whether the polls succeed or not, could hinge on a decision by the opposition Democrat Party whether to contest them, or heed calls by the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) street movement to boycott them.

The PDRC wants the caretaker government to resign and an appointed "people's council" to run the nation for a year, to institute sweeping reforms before another election.

For the Democrat Party, a potentially historic decision looms, said political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn. The party is holding a national convention tomorrow, during which it will vote on a new executive committee and leader. Party chief Abhisit Vejjajiva is expected to retain his position. The new committee will decide whether to contest. It has until December 23, when political parties must register their candidates.

There are compelling reasons not to contest, said Dr Panitan. "One, they will lose. Two, campaigning will be difficult: because of the party's association with the PDRC, the (pro-government) red shirts will be angry and aggressive. Three, this opportunity may be the best in decades for real reforms." And the PDRC expected the party to walk away, he added.

But he acknowledged: "It is not a good tactic for a political party to walk away from an election. They will lose supporters."

If the party boycotts the polls, it will rob them of their legitimacy, placing Puea Thai in jeopardy even if it wins. That will plunge Thailand deeper into crisis.

The Democrat Party has not won an election since 1992. It boycotted the one in 2006, triggering a series of events including a coup that year that unseated then premier Thaksin Shinawatra. But the coup created a backlash, discrediting the army and cementing Thaksin's popular support. The Puea Thai is Thaksin's proxy.

If the Democrats contest, they will upset hundreds of thousands of PDRC supporters who reject electoral democracy, seeing it as corrupted by billionaire Thaksin.

A Democrat Party insider who asked not to be named, said: "It's hard to tell what's going to happen. For the party, it's damned if we do and damned if we don't. Each direction is the right choice. If you are for democracy, you go for elections. Or do you stick with your friends, the PDRC."

He said the party was split quite evenly down the middle.

Meanwhile, Puea Thai is confident of the military's support for the electoral process. "The armed forces leaders sort of confirmed on Saturday that they will not stage a coup," said Chaturon.

Analysts say the army has no choice but to support the polls, as they are mandated by the Constitution, and the dissolution of the House was approved by the king.

The armed forces' top commanders were careful not to take sides at a forum last Saturday. But supreme commander Thanasak Patimaprakorn appeared to endorse the polls when he said a panel independent of politicians could be set up to educate the public on free and fair elections.

Just hours after the military forum, PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban thundered to supporters at a Bangkok rally: "The February 2 election is not going to happen!"

Analysts expect the polls to be chaotic and potentially violent.

"Some say the possibility of resolving the conflict through peaceful means is already closed," Chaturon cautioned.


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