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Thailand election traces red shirt, yellow shirt fault line

Sunday's by-election in Thailand offer a window on the continuing divide, and hints at the enduring strength of the red shirt opposition.

By Correspondent / July 26, 2010

An election official sits at a polling station in Bangkok July 25. The by-election, held under the state of emergency, pits a detained 'red shirt' protest leader against a pro-government candidate and is closely watched in the politically divided country.

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters

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Bangkok, Thailand

Two months after security forces put down violent street protests, a by-election held Sunday in Thailand offered a small window into public opinion in a divided nation.

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The result – an incumbent victory over a robust red-shirt opposition challenge – suggests that these political divisions persist and will resist any easy fix. It also points to the resilience of the red shirts, the rural-based protest movement that emerged with the backing of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra after a military coup in 2006.

Sunday’s vote was held under a state of emergency imposed in April that suspends a broad range of civil and political rights. Some government backers have begun to criticize the prolonged emergency as counterproductive to the goal of national reconciliation and social inclusion. Army commanders have defended their powers as necessary to maintain order.

Adding to the uncertainty, a bomb exploded after the polls closed in Bangkok's city center, killing one person and injuring several others. The attack was staged in an area that the red shirts occupied in April and turned into a barricaded camp. The incident is the first deadly incident in Bangkok since the May 19th army-led crackdown.

Sunday’s by-election pitted a former deputy mayor, Panich Vikitsareth against a detained red-shirt leader who ran his campaign from jail. Unofficial results gave Mr. Panich over 96,000 votes out of 192,000 cast, while Korkaew Pikulthong, the candidate for the opposition Pua Thai party, received less than 82,000 votes, yielding an eight percent margin of victory.

Analysts caution against extrapolating too much from a single ballot in Bangkok with a scant 50 percent turnout. But they point out that the ruling Democrat Party fielded a highly qualified candidate in a seat that it already held against an opposition that was hamstrung by the absence of its candidate – yet managed to garner a sizeable vote.

“The red shirts have a lot of support, even in Bangkok. This was an election about colors more than parties,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Panich is aligned to rival yellow shirts known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy. The group’s political party withdrew its candidate from the by-election, claiming that it didn’t want to compete with a “terrorist” red shirt. The move was widely seen as a sop to the Democrats who feared a divided support base.

The opposition framed the ballot as a referendum on the government’s crackdown on the protests, with the loss of nearly 90 lives, mostly red shirts shot by the Army. For its part, the Democrat Party asked voters to support the government and its reconciliation program, not dwell on the recent turmoil. Party officials said their margin would have been more emphatic had the election not been held on a holiday weekend, which hurt turnout among middle-class supporters.

Speaking after his victory, Panich criticized the opposition for stirring up tensions with its campaign. “We want to move forward. Lets forget about the past,” he says.

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