Thailand's PM fights uphill reelection battle

Polls suggest that Thailand's opposition Puea Thai Party (PTP), which is loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and led by his sister, will win the largest share in a divisive July 3 parliamentary vote.

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters
Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of toppled former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the prime ministerial candidate for the country's biggest opposition Pheu Thai Party, greets her supporters during an election campaign in Nong Khai province, east of Bangkok, last week.
Victor Fraile/Reuters/File
Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Hong Kong in this December 25, 2007 file photo.

Nearly five years after a military coup upended a fragile democracy and set off chaotic political convulsions, Thailand is gearing up for a critical election on July 3.

Voters are electing lawmakers to a 500-seat parliament, in which two major parties are vying to lead a coalition government. Polls suggest that the opposition Puea Thai Party (PTP), which is loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and led by his sister, will win the largest share in what would be a rerun of a December 2007 election held under military rule.

Analysts warn, however, that a PTP-led government could be unstable due to resistance from the military and other forces opposed to the rehabilitation of Mr. Thaksin, who held power before the coup. Conversely, a military-backed coalition that shuts out PTP may trigger mass protests by Thaksin's antigovernment "red-shirt" supporters in Thailand, a longtime US military ally.

Critical succession period

For Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Oxford-educated leader of the ruling Democrat Party, an election defeat could lead to more than a contrite concession speech. PTP leaders have threatened to investigate Mr. Abhisit for ordering last year’s suppression of violent red-shirt demonstrators in Bangkok in which 92 people died. Scores of protesters were jailed for violent acts but no civilian or military official has faced prosecution.

A defeat for Abhisit would also be a blow to his royalist backers who fear losing control during a delicate succession, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch, has been hospitalized since 2009 and recently underwent surgery.

“The elite do not wish to see a red government to be in charge during the critical [succession] period,” he says.

Thaksin's sister on the rise

Abhisit’s main challenger is Yingluck Shinawatra, a businesswoman and Thaksin’s youngest sister. Her slick campaign has energized PTP supporters and drawn comparisons with Thaksin, who has called her his “clone”. She has declined calls for a televised debate with Abhisit, a skilled orator in Thai and English, and focused instead on choreographed campaign stops.

While Abhisit is scathing in his criticism of Thaksin, he sidesteps personal attacks on Ms. Yingluck, who has never held public office. “I think politicians need to develop their professionalism and experience in politics, but it’s up to the people whether they think that’s a relevant factor,” he told a group of foreign correspondents last week.

Abhisit touts the economy

On the streets of Bangkok, which may tip the balance in the tight race, Abhisit has been campaigning on his economic record during two-and-a-half years in office, and his plans for future development. Thailand’s economy is forecast to grow this year by 4 percent after an export-led rebound from a 2009 recession that was exacerbated by political instability.

On a recent afternoon, Abhisit greeted market vendors along a congested lane in the sprawling capital, a yellow flower garland draped over his powder-blue shirt. Inside a community center, he met former drug addicts and spoke at length about his plans to tackle illegal drugs, before donning a soccer jersey and playing a quick game with the former addicts and other youth.

Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, the local candidate in the district, said the prime minister’s visit would energize Democrat Party supporters in a closely fought contest. “Abhisit has a lot of fans,” she says.

While all parties offer broadly similar economic policies, Abhisit has repeatedly attacked PTP for proposing a political amnesty bill that he says would benefit Thaksin and drag the country back into further conflict. Thaksin was convicted in absentia in 2009 of abusing his power while in office and ordered to serve two years in jail. He says the case was politically motivated.

Speaking to foreign correspondents, Abhisit framed the election as a contest of policy ideas that his opponents were ducking. “I wish they’d come straight out and compete with us on how to run the country… The people’s priorities are economic and social concerns,” he said during an hour-long interview.

Vote 'No'?

Abhisit also faces a challenge from the Democrat Party’s flanks. The ultra-conservative People’s Alliance for Democracy, which staged mass anti-Thaksin protests in 2006 and 2008, are running a Vote No campaign that urges voters to spoil their ballots. The group has put up colorful posters of animals dressed in suits to represent unworthy politicians. Abhisit admitted that the campaign could hurt them if it peels away their supporters.

Among the most contentious issues in the campaign is last year’s bloodshed in Bangkok, the worst political violence in a generation. The two main parties have traded accusations of who was to blame for chaotic protests that shut down parts of the city for several weeks. While PTP candidates have attacked the government’s response as heavy handed, Democrat Party officials have defended their actions and criticized PTP for promoting protest leaders accused of instigating the violence.

Last May, Abhisit appointed an independent fact-finding committee into the violence. Committee members have complained of obstruction by both military officials and red-shirt leaders, and have proven unable to shed much light on what happened, to the frustration of relatives of the dead and injured, including medics, bystanders, and reporters caught in the crossfire. Human rights groups say Abhisit, who took power with military support, appears unable and unwilling to bring soldiers to account.

Speaking to foreign correspondents, Abhisit said that he was frustrated with the slow pace of investigations. “We make sure that all the government personnel and agencies cooperate. I hope that the red shirts’ people will do the same,” he said.

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