Thai voters woke Monday to a political quagmire after an opposition boycott of Sunday's snap elections dented Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's hopes of quickly forming a new government. The result has produced a dangerous vacuum after months of mounting protests against Mr. Thaksin's rule.
How Thailand handles this impasse could determine the endurance of its political system, which has been slow to consolidate the democratic gains of recent decades. Observers warn that tough posturing by both sides may encourage more of the violence that flared during the campaign.
Thaksin's opponents have already dismissed the election as flawed and vowed to continue their street action until he quits. Legal challenges are also pending over alleged electoral fraud by Thaksin's party.
"The longer he stays on, the more the [protests] will grow ... how can you have an election without an opposition? It doesn't mean anything," says Kasit Piromya, former Thai ambassador to Washington who has joined calls for Thaksin's resignation.
Thaksin faces two hurdles with this vote. First, he had promised before the polls to step down if his Thai Rak Thai party garnered less than half of the votes cast. Monday, with official results still pending, Thaksin claimed to have surpassed the threshold.
Even if Thai Rak Thai ultimately misses the 50 percent mark, the party will have technically won and Thaksin is not bound by his vow to step aside. The opposition boycott meant that the ruling party ran unopposed in two-thirds of the seats, prompting many voters to cast a "No Vote" or to spoil their ballots.
The more pressing challenge to be resolved is 38 districts that failed to elect MPs because a single contender polled less than 20 percent of the eligible vote. This ties Thaksin's hands, since Thailand's parliament cannot convene without a full quota of 500 MPs, and reruns of empty seats may prove inconclusive.
Reforms in the 1990s were supposed to make this type of instability a thing of the past in Thailand. Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party exemplified the type of national party envisioned by framers of the 1997 Constitution who sought a stable two- or three-party system, instead of messy coalitions.
Thaksin, a former police colonel turned tycoon, founded the party in 1998, using his Shin Corp. business offices as party headquarters.
He went on to take the party from success to success. After his victory in 2001 under a new constitution, Thaksin led a coalition government that became the first in Thailand to complete a parliamentary term. A landslide victory in February 2005 confirmed Thaksin's popularity and gave Thailand another first: an elected single-party government.
But the combination of electoral prowess and private wealth also undercut Thailand's old political elite and set off complaints of overreaching executive power. The $1.9 billion sale of Shin Corp. to foreign investors in January ignited the current political row.
Calls for political reform have grown louder during the current crisis over Thaksin's leadership. Opposition parties cited his alleged interference with key appointments to regulatory agencies as one reason for their election boycott. Thaksin has denied interfering in the process, which is the task of the Senate, a body without party affiliations.
Analysts say the battle over the constitution will be hard to resolve as some of the flaws identified by critics hinge not on rules and regulations but on the personal integrity of officials to remain impartial. But many concur that the checks and balances written into the constitution haven't worked effectively under Thaksin's brand of authoritarian rule.
"As with any constitution, all the parts have to work. Having big parties isn't any good as long as you don't have independent bodies to provide a check on power," says Michael Montesano, assistant professor of Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore.
Thaksin huddled Monday with political aides as details emerged of his Pyrrhic victory. Some party officials appeared taken aback by the size of the protest vote. But Thaksin appeared to brush off earlier speculation that he would resign as party leader. Instead he said Monday that he would set up a panel to seek a way out of the political impasse, and that he would resign if the panel recommended it.
"I will tell the 16 million voters [who cast ballots for Thai Rak Thai] that this committee wanted me to quit and I will quit," he said on a political talk show a day after the election.
Thaksin has in the past offered to set up an independent commission to amend the 1997 Constitution, which he has been accused of undermining.
Opposition parties insist that Thaksin must make the first move to end the parliamentary deadlock. "The government has pushed itself and the country into a corner. We've tried to persuade them to be flexible ... but I don't think Thai Rak Thai is willing to give up its claim on power," says Surin Pitsuwan, former foreign minister and opposition MP.
Analysts say the standoff is worrying because of the potential for violence, both at street protests and in other situations where tensions have boiled over. While the mass protests in Bangkok have all been peaceful, security officials have called for a postelection return to "law and order," signaling a possible crackdown on disruptive rallies.
But perhaps a greater danger is from political operators on the defensive.
Last week, a group of Thaksin supporters in his hometown of Chiang Mai stormed a meeting and chased away the leader of the main opposition Democrat Party. A small bomb was earlier defused outside their party headquarters in Bangkok. A mob also besieged an opposition newspaper in Bangkok and forced its closure over claims that a story was disrespectful to Thailand's revered monarch.
"We're not seeing opposition violence. The great concern is can Thaksin control his supporters? I don't think he can," says James Klein, representative of the Asia Foundation in Thailand.