Thailand’s ruling party declared a comfortable victory Sunday in a closely watched by-election held in Bangkok under a state of emergency that has been imposed since April, when clashes between opposition ‘red shirt’ protesters and government forces killed nearly 90 people, mostly protesters.
The Thailand election, held in a suburban district on a holiday weekend, went peacefully. But shortly after the polls closed, a bomb exploded at a bus stop close to the site of the red-shirt rally that the military broke up on May 19. Police said nine people had been injured in the blast, the most serious such incident in two months.
The bomb was a reminder of the dangerous political tensions in Thailand, which is polarized along class and regional lines and has struggled to find its footing since a military coup in 2006 against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who remains a hero to many red shirts. Mr. Thaksin, a fugitive from Thai justice, is accused of fomenting the April-May protests.
During the protests, authorities blamed red-shirt militants for a string of grenade attacks against mostly unmanned targets. Suspicion for the latest bombing is likely to fall on similar factions aligned to Thaksin, who has repeatedly denied having a hand in political violence.
Sunday’s by-election was largely symbolic and won’t affect the balance of power in Thailand’s parliament. But it served as a barometer of the government’s handling of the red-shirt protests and the sympathies of Bangkok residents.
Unofficial results showed that former deputy city mayor Panich Vikitsareth, easily beat off a challenge from the opposition party, which fielded a jailed red-shirt leader. Speaking at the headquarters of the Democrat Party, Mr. Panich said the result was a clear endorsement of the ruling coalition’s policies.
“It proves that the people want this government and believe that the government has done the right thing,” he says.
His party previously held the seat and Mr. Panich was widely favored to win. But party officials said his margin of victory – around 15,000 out of 178,000 votes – was a positive sign, though they declined to say if it would be followed by national elections. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s term ends in Dec. 2011 and a key demand of the mass protests was an earlier election.
Opposition supporters said Sunday’s vote was flawed because of the restrictions under the state of emergency and the refusal of judges to release Korkaew Pikulthong, the jailed protest leader, during the campaign.
“It’s not fair. They should give Korkaew bail and let him come out,” says Tima Sungurai, a clothes vendor, as she waited outside a polling station.
Panich argued that it was the opposition’s choice to field a prisoner as the candidate and argued that many voters wanted to look forward, not focus on the bloody events of the past, as Mr. Korkaew had done in his statements.
Since then, Mr. Abhisit has heavily promoted a policy of national reconciliation while continuing to quash the red-shirt movement, including its financial backers and media outlets. Several detained protest leaders, including Korwaew, have been charged with terrorism, a capital offense.