BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva pulled on a crash helmet, sat astride a vintage side-car motorbike and posed for the photographers as his election campaign convoy moved through central Bangkok one day last week.
But, in a stroke of bad luck, the engine spluttered and died halfway down an alley. Abhisit tried several times to restart it, shook his head, dismounted and trudged on by foot.
Abhisit’s disastrous publicity stunt was somehow symbolic of his Democrat Party’s struggle to make headway against a resurgent opposition led by the sister of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon ousted in a 2006 coup who now calls the shots from exile in Dubai.
Opinion polls, while far from reliable, increasingly point to a win for Thaksin’s Puea Thai Party in the July 3 vote even though it would probably have to forge a coalition to rule.
The emergence of Yingluck Shinawatra, 43, as the charismatic figurehead for Puea Thai has electrified the party’s campaign far beyond the north and northeast rural regions that have long been “red shirt” bastions of support for Thaksin.
The Democrats, on the other hand, may win too few parliamentary seats to be given the first shot at putting together a coalition government -- and it is far from certain they can win enough seats to convince members of their current alliance to stay on board and steer clear of Puea Thai.
Yingluck’s dramatic late entry into the election race caught Abhisit’s party off guard and made its campaign look all the more lackluster.
“Their campaign has been quiet, that’s their style, not like the big marketing focus Thaksin has always had,” said Chris Baker, author of “Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand” and several other books on Thai politics.
“The Democrats were shaken enormously by Yingluck’s candidacy,” he added. “Abhisit will focus on trying to discredit Puea Thai and appeal to those not fond of Thaksin and those wanting stability.”
Abhisit has done just that, warning in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday that the country, which has been racked by sporadic unrest for the past five years, could lurch into a new round of instability if his rivals win power.
A 10-week anti-government protest in Bangkok by red-shirted Thaksin supporters last year was broken up by the army, a bloody denouement in which 91 people were killed, nearly 2,000 wounded and more than 30 buildings set on fire.
Against the odds, Abhisit had the steadfast backing of the military and royalist elite and held on after the Bangkok unrest. However, his fortunes are shifting, raising questions over whether he can continue to lead Thailand even if the Democrats manage to form a coalition.
“Any potential coalition partners would make it a condition that he has to be replaced,” said Jacob Ramsay, senior Southeast Asia analyst at consultants Control Risks. “It’s not about his competence, it’s the taint of what happened last year.”
The military, whose politicized top brass loathe Thaksin and could face the axe if his party takes power, is expected to rally behind Abhisit.
Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha made a barely disguised effort on Tuesday to shore up the Democrat Party’s crumbling fortunes, urging voters in a 20-minute television appearance “to vote for good people” and warning against a repeat of the 2007 election, which was won by Thaksin allies.
However, anecdotal evidence as well as the opinion polls spell trouble for the urbane and Oxford-educated Abhisit, who insists the election is still a close race between his party, which will be “No. 10” on voters’ ballot papers, and Puea Thai, “No. 1.”
A Democrat partyman repeatedly bellowed from a campaign truck at a busy Bangkok intersection on Tuesday: “What number do we want?” Many in the thin crowd of onlookers giggled and shouted back: “No. 1.”
Just as Abhisit arrived and climbed up to join his party colleague, a Puea Thai campaign truck festooned in red banners suddenly appeared, and a cheer went up from the crowd.
If his campaign in a stronghold such as Bangkok is sputtering, it is nowhere insight in the north and northeast, where Thaksin supporters have launched hundreds of defiant “red shirt” villages, highlighting the failure of a reconciliation effort after last year’s bloody crackdown in Bangkok.
While a Puea Thai plurality is expected by most independent analysts, a complex set of potential scenarios could still favor the Democrats if they manage to retain their traditional support base.
One source of contention with Thaksin’s supporters is that the Democrats could still lead a coalition as the second-placed party, which is probably the best Abhisit could hope for right now. The deficit between the two parties is critical.
If Puea Thai musters less than 220 of the 500 parliamentary seats at stake and the Democrats win 180, the advantage will be with Abhisit. He could still scrape through with the help of one medium-sized party, most likely Bhumjai Thai, the second-biggest partner in the current alliance and a bitter rival of Puea Thai.
Such an outcome would raise the risk of tens of thousands of red shirt protesters flooding back into the streets of Bangkok and possible new clashes with soldiers.
As with almost everything in contemporary Thai politics, it will probably be the Thaksin factor that dictates the outcome, and Abhisit’s survival.
“Thaksin’s divisiveness is the key. If Puea Thai don’t win big, smaller parties will want to distance themselves from Thaksin, because they see instability and polarization ahead,” said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.
Additional reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Jason Szep and Bill Tarrant