For months antigovernment protesters have rallied in Bangkok, blockading roads, occupying buildings, and vowing to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who has declared a state of emergency ahead of parliamentary elections on Sunday.
Behind the backlash in Bangkok is a deep pool of resentment here in southern Thailand, which has sent tens of thousands of protesters to the capital. The region has long had a distinct character from Thailand's north, where Ms. Yingluck draws much of her support. Home to world-class beach resorts, Thailand's south is wealthier than other regions. Discerning these differences is key to understanding the polarization that is dividing Thailand.
In the south, the majority supports the Democrat Party, the opposition party that has boycotted Sunday's election and thrown its weight behind the protesters. At the last election in 2011, the Democrats came in second, but they have not won an election in two decades. Protesters say the electoral system has been hijacked by Ms. Yingluck and her brother, self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and needs to be reformed by a "people's council," but critics of the protesters see another move to topple an elected, Thaksin-backed government by undemocratic means.
At a restaurant in Surat Thani, a coastal city 330 miles south of Bangkok, Prapaporn Inthuputi, the restaurant's owner, is glued to the ear-splitting TV coverage of the rallies. While she has not joined the flood of southerners to Bangkok, she shares the protesters' belief that elections are not the answer to Thailand's political standoff.
“The system under Thaksin has been corrupt from 12 years ago, and now it is the same with his sister," she says.
Support for the Democrat Party is partly based on “patronage-clients relations and what some argue as the cultural distinctiveness of the southern people," says Thai scholar Aim Sinpeng at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
Thai southerners, Ms. Aim says, “tend to have strong loyalty towards individuals and they vote for family members, as opposed to people they believe would do a good job.”
Economic factors also play a part. While the protest movement has criticized Yingluck's rice subsidy program, which they see as benefitting government supporters – millions of whom are farmers – southern rubber farmers want a similar program for their crops.
Last August, southern farmers staged protests calling for the government to guarantee rubber prices and many rubber farmers have joined the ongoing antigovernment demonstrations. Thailand is the world's largest producer and exporter of rubber.
The income gap has narrowed between the rice-growing north and the rubber and palm-oil producing south, which hosts millions of foreign tourists a year. But it is still around 20 percent: per capita income in the south is 104,738 baht (US $3,171), compared with the north's 79,158 baht (US $2,396), according to government statistics.
No election preparation
Across the south, there is little sign of support for the ruling Pheu Thai party. A three-hour drive southwest of Surat Thani, on the resort island of Phuket, a visitor would not know that an election is just days away. On a road that links the island's main city to the coast, of five Peau Thai election banners visible along the ten mile stretch, only two were intact; the others had been vandalized.
During Thailand's 2011 national elections, party posters filled streets across the country, but Southern Thailand seems more interested in celebrating Chinese New Year: red lanterns and bunting line the streets.
And back in Surat Thani there was also little indication that an election is imminent, aside from three Puea Thai banners – all intact – in the vicinity of the city's main police station.
At the city office of Thailand's election commission, instead of information about voting rules or polling station locations, banners featuring the antigovernment protest leader, a southern politician, hung on the gate.
Kickstarting his motorbike at the office gate, just four days out from the vote, election commission official Konate Komnuang said that he would not be on duty come Feb. 2, but will join thousands of other southerners protesting in the Thai capital.
“I will go to Bangkok, after I finish up in my office tomorrow,” he said. “My boss has already gone.”