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Asia

Thai society 'needs to achieve a fresh consensus'

Voters in Thailand went to the polls on Sunday, amid opposition calls to boycott the election. Analyst Matthew Wheeler says the vote is unlikely to quell the political strife that has plagued the country for months.

Protesters prevented millions of Thai voters from casting their votes in a contentious general election, which could further increase divisions in Thailand's already polarized society. Officials said about 130,000 security personnel were deployed to ensure the smooth running of the poll.

Although voting proceeded peacefully in most areas across the country, protesters opposed to the vote forced a number of polling stations to close or prevented them from opening, particularly in Bangkok and the country's south, considered an opposition stronghold. The election had been overshadowed by months of anti-government demonstrations aimed at toppling the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose opponents accuse her of corruption.

In a DW interview Matthew Wheeler, Southeast Asia analyst at the International Crisis Group, says the election may serve to diminish some popular support for the street protests, but it is unlikely to resolve the country's political impasse.

DW: How did election day unfold in Thailand?

Matthew Wheeler: Polling in Bangkok was relatively peaceful, but anti-government protesters succeeded in thwarting elections in dozens of constituencies by preventing the distribution of ballots. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration reported that 510 polling units out of 6,671 in 33 constituencies were unable to open.

Voting proceeded without incident in most of the country, with the exception of the south, a stronghold of the opposition Democrat Party that boycotted the election.

Given the fact that the vote was disrupted in hundreds of polling units, what kind of results are to be expected?

Early indications show that national voter turnout was relatively low. It is expected to be much lower than in the 2011 general election where more than 70 percent of Thailand's 48 million registered voters cast their ballots. The Election Commission said the results of today's general election will not be made public before February 23.

Wahlen in Thailand - Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra casts her vote in s ballot box at a polling station in Bangkok on February 2, 2014. (Photo: AFP)

Wheeler says the election will be a moral victory of sorts for Yingluck's government

Given the absence of voting in most of the south and the polling problems in Bangkok, the formation of a new lower house of parliament will have to await the outcome of by-elections. At best, this could take several months, during which time the caretaker government will remain in office. In the meantime, the anti-government protesters are likely to continue to obstruct elections with the aim of delegitimizing Yingluck's government and creating a power vacuum.

If the election were to be nullified or the results declared inconclusive, will the opposition have achieved its main goal?

The People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the main anti-government protest group, has been calling for the caretaker Pheu Thai Party-led government to be ousted, for the "Shinawatra clan" to be expelled and their influence to be eradicated. They wanted the election to be postponed until after an unelected "people's council" could enact unspecified reforms.

Annulment of the election would be a step towards achieving these goals, but it alone wouldn't constitute a victory. The PDRC needs the intervention of the courts, independent agencies, or the military to effect their agenda.

As the vote was boycotted by the opposition and the formation of a new government is unlikely, would it be safe to assume that Yingluck's strategy to legitimize her power by conducting the poll elections has failed?

The election results probably will not change anyone's mind about whether or not Yingluck's government is legitimate. Her party was elected in 2011 under a constitution written by the 2006 constitutional assembly, which was appointed by the coup-installed government, and electoral rules amended by the Democrat Party government.

No one contested the legitimacy of that election. The PDRC maintains that the government lost legitimacy because of how it governed but, under normal circumstances, this would be a matter for voters to decide.

What impact is the vote likely to have on the current political crisis?

The election will be a moral victory of sorts for Yingluck's government, and it may serve to diminish some popular support for the PDRC protests, but no one expected the election to resolve Thailand's political impasse.

The contest between the Pheu Thai and its royalist-establishment antagonists will continue, playing out particularly in the courts and constitutionally mandated watchdog agencies.

How do you expect the situation to develop?

The next few weeks will see by-elections for constituencies where protesters prevented polling, examination of complaints and a slew of legal challenges. Ostensibly independent watchdog agencies will swing into action. The Democrat Party will almost certainly petition the Constitutional Court to rule that the election was organized in an unconstitutional manner.

In the meantime, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) has stated that it would "fast track" an investigation into Prime Minister Yingluck's culpability in the government's expensive and allegedly corrupt rice-pledging scheme.

There is an expectation that powerful forces behind the PDRC protests will continue to seek Yingluck's ouster and the establishment of an appointed government. This would infuriate government supporters, who have seen their elected leaders toppled in a serial fashion since 2006.

What needs to happen for the political turmoil to end?

Thai society needs to achieve a fresh consensus on how its politics are organized. At the moment, there is no agreement on even basic issues, such as the universal franchise and the value of a popular mandate.

There must be an inclusive dialogue about the rules by which power is acquired and exercised. Imposition of a system that discounts the voice of a majority of voters will invite greater violence.

Matthew Wheeler is Southeast Asia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez