As Thailand braces for contentious election, a deeper regional divide

As pro- and antigovernment supporters gear up for a showdown Sunday, observers question whether leaders can control their supporters.

Sakchai Lalit/AP
Antigovernment protesters with national flags gather for a rally Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, in Bangkok, Thailand.

Mahawon Kawang runs a radio talk show in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city. He recently saw his former classmate – Thailand’s embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – when she came to see her family during the new year holiday. 

“If you ask me if Prime Minister Yingluck is happy or not, she is not,” he says. “Who wants to be the prime minister in this time? No one. But she has to stay and we all admire her for being so strong.”

Ms. Yingluck may be a reluctant premier – she had no interest in politics growing up, according to Mr. Mahawon, who displays a picture of himself with Ms. Yingluck at their high school graduation – but now that she is in power her supporters in the north and northeast want her to stay there. The question that hangs over Thailand as it prepares for a contentious election on Sunday amid increasingly violent protests is how far these supporters would go to ensure her survival. 

Yingluck's supporters are watching with a mixture of admiration and alarm as she struggles to put down protests in the capital Bangkok that seek to topple Yingluck and end the political career of her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former premier. Antigovernment protesters have besieged Bangkok, occupied government buildings, and prevented voters casting advance ballots for Sunday's parliamentary election. They want a halt to that election so that an unelected "people's council" can reform an electoral system that has produced successive landslides for Shinawatra candidates. 

After months of lying low, under instructions from Bangkok to avoid violent confrontations with protesters, government supporters known as red shirts say they are prepared to fight back, especially if they are prevented from voting in Sunday’s election or if the army seizes on the chaos to stage a coup. 

“Our allies in other countries know Thailand doesn’t want a coup," says Thanawat Wongjinda at a candlelight vigil in support of elections, held in Chiang Mai last Friday. "We want democracy… but we are willing to fight a coup.”

On Friday hundreds of thousands of red supporters have vowed to rally to show solidarity with the government ahead of Sunday's election. Antigovernment protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said Thursday that his followers wouldn't obstruct voting. But a similar pledge last week was overturned: activists padlocked polling stations in Bangkok and in southern Thailand, a stronghold of the opposition Democrat Party that is boycotting the election. 

'Red shirts': Not solely rural poor

The red shirts are often characterized as Thailand's rural poor who have benefited from policies introduced by Yingluck and Thaksin such as subsidized health care, cheap credit, and access to higher education. These 'populist' policies are credited with lifting many out of poverty; the Shinawatra family enjoys a cult-like following. 

But the reds are also academics, housewives, and educated business people (like radio host Mahawon who has a masters degree) who criticize the protesters in Bangkok as a minority holding the country hostage through their powerful connections to the army and the royal family.  

“We are coming out now because we want to show the world that besides the protesters there is a much bigger group who think differently,” Mahawon said adding that they will do their best to avoid violence but that they will fight if necessary.

So far Yingluck has taken a hands-off response to growing insurrection on the streets of the capital. She has refused to use force – for which international observers have praised her – but her grip on power has slipped. Besieged government ministries have been shifted to temporary accommodation and Yingluck operates from different undisclosed locations.

Last week she introduced a state of emergency in Thailand, which in theory gives the government greater powers to clear out protest camps ahead of Sunday’s election, but so far nothing much has changed. Even Yingluck seems unsure if Thailand’s all-powerful army would back her if the government cracked down. 

“You would have to ask the army,” she said Sunday when a reporter asked if she thinks she has the backing of the military.    

Some observers have gone so far to suggest the country could split in two if the stand off continues.

Can supporters be controlled?

But as election day nears, and the risk of confrontation between Thailand’s bitterly divided political camps increases, some fear neither Yingluck nor Mr Suthep can control their supporters.

“Thailand is spiraling into political violence as opposition and progovernment groups respond tit-for-tat against attacks and provocations,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday. 

On Wednesday a government spokesman said 10,000 police would secure Bangkok for election day after the government rejected a call from the Election Commission to postpone it. 

"I ask Bangkok residents to come out and vote," labor minister Chalerm Yoobumrung told reporters on Wednesday. "The police will take care of security … Those who are thinking of going and shutting polling stations in the morning should think twice because the police will not allow them to."

The government has accused the Election Commission of siding with protesters and not doing enough to ensure people's safety during Sunday's early vote.

If the election proceeds, the new parliament will not reach the required minimum number of members because candidates in many provinces were blocked from registering by protesters. More than 20 special elections will need to be held before the parliament can elect a new government.

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