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What strategy will Thaksin employ now?
Publication Date : 05-03-2013
The onus is on former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to chart the next move following Sunday's Bangkok gubernatorial vote.
At issue is not the victory of Democrat MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra but the fact that he beat Pheu Thai's candidate Pongsapat Pongcharoen by almost 7 per cent.
In the 2011 general election, the Democrats mustered about 41 per cent of popular votes in Bangkok while the ruling party trailed behind at some 39 per cent.
Nationwide, Pheu Thai outpaced the main opposition party by 15 million to 11 million popular votes. But in the capital, the ruling party lost to the Democrats by about two basis points.
Under normal circumstances, it would be absurd to compare the local and national elections.
But because of political polarisation, the anti- and pro-Thaksin camps turned Sunday's vote into a contest of their respective strengths.
The outcome of the Pongsapat-Sukhumbhand race does not bode well for Thaksin and the government. It appears to have deepened the polarisation.
Even though the ruling party has been in power for almost two years, the Pheu Thai-Democrat popularity gap in the capital is widening from two to 14 per cent.
For the past two years, Thaksin has pinned his hope on swaying the sentiment in Bangkok to support his amnesty and reconciliation plans. His main strategy is to dangle the populist goodies in front of the urban voters.
Sunday's vote has proved, however, the futility of the carrot-dangling approach.
If Thaksin is to succeed in ending his exile, then he must rethink his strategies. He might choose one of three varying scenarios, or opt to implement a mix-and-match based on these scenarios.
First, the push for amnesty, reconciliation and charter rewrite will continue - but at a slow and cautious pace.
Without a clear backing from Bangkok residents, the government has to tread carefully in order to avoid triggering its own downfall.
Should Thaksin pick this scenario, his homecoming will unlikely happen within the remaining two years of the government's term.
He will have to bide his time until the next general election.
The polarisation will persist. And the government will need to focus on implementing the mega-projects instead of touching controversial issues like granting amnesty and overhauling the charter.
Second, Thaksin may turn to rally the red shirts as a catalyst for game change.
Presently, he has been downplaying the reds with the aim of boosting government stability and to appeasing his opponents.
Since the appeasement approach has not brought about reconciliation as had been expected, it is a strong possibility that Thaksin will use the red shirts to fight a proxy war with the opposition movement, spearheaded by the Democrats and the People's Alliance for Democracy.
In this scenario, political anxiety will soar once again although the situation would remain manageable if Thaksin could keep the red shirts on a tight leash.
The Pheu Thai Party would take a back seat, leaving the red shirts to become the driving force to fight off opposition attacks.
Third, there is a remote chance that Thaksin will swallow his pride and face his legal predicament head-on in order to swiftly end his exile and bring polarisation to a close.
In a nutshell, the rough patch in Thai politics is persisting because Thaksin wants the game to bend to him instead of playing the game like everyone else.