BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand is facing a period of uncertainty as it gears up for a July 3 election that could intensify a six-year political conflict.
The poll is expected to be a two-horse race between the ruling Democrat Party and Puea Thai, the opposition party controlled by exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon ousted in a 2006 coup and despised by the military top brass and royalist elite.
Although Puea Thai leads in the opinion polls, it may end up in the parliamentary opposition again even if it wins the most seats. A Puea Thai government might suffer the same fate as its two predecessors, which were plagued by street protests before being removed by military or judicial intervention.
Although its popularity is climbing, it is unlikely Puea Thai will win a clear majority so it would probably need to form a coalition to govern, which might be tricky. Most analysts expect it to win more votes than the Democrats, perhaps 220-240 of the 500 seats. But that means the support of one medium-sized party alone may not be enough.
Aware of the entrenched disdain for Thaksin among Thailand’s influential establishment, other parties might envisage a short life span for such a government and steer clear of Puea Thai.
The party is also concerned the military or its allies could stage a so-called “silent coup”, a discreet intervention that would see other parties persuaded to decline Puea Thai’s offers and pushed into the arms of the Democrats.
Another concern for Puea Thai is possible disqualification of candidates after the poll and the loss of seats that would weaken its bargaining power.
The 2007 army-drafted constitution strengthened judicial powers in handling political cases and judges appointed by the junta disbanded two pro-Thaksin ruling parties for fraud in 2007 and 2008. In contrast, the Democrats emerged unscathed from two dissolution cases in as many weeks last year, both thrown out on technicalities over the late submission of documents.
Moves are already underfoot to thwart Puea Thai. The yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy, which helped undermine two parties controlled by Thaksin, has urged the Election Commission to disband the party on the grounds that it is run illegally by Thaksin, a banned politician and convicted felon.
A group led by two staunch Thaksin critics has filed a complaint with a state investigative body against Puea Thai’s prime ministerial candidate, Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister. The group alleged Yingluck gave false testimony during an asset concealment case involving Thaksin, in which $1.4 billion of his family’s wealth was confiscated.
Yingluck is considering suing the petitioners for defamation and Puea Thai has lodged a complaint with the EC, alleging the move was a smear campaign inspired by the Democrat Party. The Democrats deny this.
The Democrats have powerful connections and should have no trouble forming a coalition if they win a plurality. But they could still rule if they finish second with a large number of seats. A slim deficit between Puea Thai and a second-placed Democrats is a scenario that probably favours the ruling party.
Although there is some discontent over the Democrat-led government’s performance, swing voters might see Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva as a safer bet than another Thaksin-backed premier almost certain to face extra-parliamentary opposition.
WILL THE “RED SHIRTS” ACCEPT THE RESULT?
The largely pro-Thaksin protest movement, which caused havoc in Bangkok during nine weeks of protest last year, is firmly behind Puea Thai and has at least 10 of its leaders running for the party. It has promised to respect the election result if it is fair, but that leaves considerable scope for debate.
The red shirts are likely to protest if Puea Thai wins most votes but can’t form a government. The constitution permits a second-placed party to form a coalition if the winner is unable to do so, but such a scenario would probably be perceived by the red shirts as a conspiracy to block Puea Thai.
Officially, the armed forces are politically neutral and senior officers insist they will respect the result. However, their opposition to Puea Thai and Thaksin is no secret and a coup cannot be ruled out if Puea Thai forms a government.
Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has asked all parties not to drag the military into politics, but it seems to be doing that all by itself. In a televised June 14 prime-time address on two channels, Prayuth urged the public to vote for “good people” so results of previous elections aren’t repeated, comments interpreted as not-so-subtle references to Puea Thai. Prayuth said his comments were his personal views and not the army‘s.
Critics also say recent cases lodged by the military against red shirt leaders for alleged royal insults are politically motivated to slur Puea Thai.
Much is at stake for the military. Ahead of an annual armed forces reshuffle in October, a Puea Thai government wary of an ever-present coup threat might try to purge the top brass, many of whom were involved in the coup that overthrew Thaksin.
Well-placed sources suggest Puea Thai is pursuing a deal behind the scenes under which the military would allow the party to govern in return for a guarantee that some of the top generals, in particular, Prayuth, would not be removed Puea Thai would appoint a defence minister sensitive to the army leadership. Abhisit has told Reuters he was aware Puea Thai had approached the army offering some kind of deal.
Editing by Nick Macfie