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.
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.
In June, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appointed a fact-finding commission to look into the protests as part of a broader program that includes long-term socio-economic reforms. Critics accuse him of trying to cover up the violence meted out by security forces and demonizing the red shirts as terrorists bent on treason.
Among those accused of terrorism, a capital offense, is Mr. Korkaew, a bespectacled businessman turned red-shirt agitator. In a prison visitors’ room interview before Sunday's vote, he urged his supporters to send a message to the government to end injustice and restore democracy. He denied any involvement in the violence and said he had been unfairly treated.
“I’m a businessman, an engineer. I’m not a terrorist,” he says.
The Democrat Party heads a six-party coalition formed after the court-ordered dissolution of a popular pro-Thaksin party in 2008. That party reformed as Pua Thai and draws on the same rural and working-class base as the red shirts. It remains the largest party in parliament and is seen as a formidable opponent to Mr. Abhisit, whose term ends in December 2011.
Michael Montesano, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says the fact that Pua Thai put up a strong fight in Bangkok despite the emergency law shows the difficult road ahead if and when Abhisit goes to the polls. And holding a general election under such constraints is likely to be seen by Thais as undemocratic, he argues.
“They can’t take this as a blueprint for how they’re going to proceed if they want to build some stable political order,” he says.
The by-election took place in a large, socially mixed constituency of new subdivisions, low-income housing and big-box stores. In 2007, it elected three lawmakers, of which two belonged to the Democrats. Unlike in that contest, minor parties in the ruling coalition stayed out in deference to the incumbent party, making it a two-way fight.
After casting her ballot, SupapornChuangchot, a high-school teacher, said she was a loyal red shirt, though she rarely attended rallies. She described herself as middle class, with an above-average salary, her own house and regular foreign vacations. She praised Thaksin as an effective national leader and said many educated people shared her views.
“This election is about justice,” she says. “ I can accept [Panich] as MP, but I’m still supporting the red shirts.”
Outside another polling station, more voters appeared to favor the Democrats and expressed optimism that Abhisit could unite the country. A young, curly-haired architect said the government needed longer to complete its work before the parliament could be dissolved. He said he opposed the red-shirt rallies but that it was wrong to tar all protesters as violent.
But he admitted that he was still in the dark about the recent violence, amid competing claims and counterclaims. “It’s difficult to say what is true,” he says.