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'Thai vote won't end crisis'

Gabriel Domínguez
January 31, 2014

With warnings of violence and an increased army presence, tensions are high in Thailand ahead of Sunday's general election, which analyst Kim McQuay says will not end the political turmoil in the Southeast Asian nation.

Bangkok Protest 17.01.2014
Image: Reuters

The Thai government has vowed to push ahead with a general election on Sunday, February 2, despite a boycott by the opposition and threats by anti-government protesters that they will disrupt the poll in an attempt to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her cabinet to resign.

The protesters, who have occupied major intersections in the capital Bangkok, accuse Yingluck of being a puppet of her self-exiled brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra. They demand that her government be replaced by a non-elected "people's council" to oversee reforms before any future vote. In the process they have staged some of the largest street demonstrations in Thai history.

Yingluck's governing Pheu Thai party is expected to win the poll, but it remains unclear whether this will result in the formation of a new government, as a new parliament can convene only if 95 percent of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives are elected.

In a DW interview Kim McQuay, The Asia Foundation's country representative to Thailand, says an election victory by the ruling party would have little impact on the political standoff, as it would simply restore the situation from which the present tensions sprang.

How would you describe the political situation in Thailand ahead of the February 2 poll?

With the election just two days away, the rival political factions appear to have drawn the line in the sand. The Pheu Thai government is determined to proceed with the election as scheduled, and the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and the Democrat Party (DP) are bent on continuing their demonstrations. They are presumably taking measures to disrupt the polling in Bangkok, in southern parts of the country, and their other strongholds.

Kim McQuay, Thailand country representative for the Asia Foundation.
McQuay says the political crisis is likely to continue regardless of the voteImage: The Asia Foundation

Ordinary Thais are caught in a web of uncertainty, with the specter of violence on Election Day creating worry. There is little sign of a compromise between the rival political factions through which political and governance reform measures might be agreed on that would set Thai politics on course for a fully contested election.

The protesters say they will disrupt the ballot as part of their campaign to overthrow PM Yingluck. How is Election Day likely to unfold?

If the PDRC follows the same pattern as during the early polling day on January 26, the expectation is that hard-core demonstrators will make it difficult for voters to reach balloting stations in areas of popular support for the anti-government movement. The PDRC has indicated that it will not physically obstruct voters, but it is expected to take every possible measure to make it difficult for voters to reach polling stations.

However, it is unlikely that the PDRC would risk similar resistance efforts in the traditional strongholds of the red-shirted supporters of the ruling Pheu Thai party in the north and northeast. The "Red Shirts" have announced that they will take counter-measures to protect polling stations in these areas and ensure that voters are able to vote.

Why did the Thai government decide to go ahead with the election despite warnings of violence and the possibility of delay as expressed by the country's Election Commission?

The Yingluck government has taken a number of steps over the course of several weeks of political unrest to demonstrate that it is firmly at the helm of national political leadership. The calculus may have included the possibility that, if the election was not held, the government would face legal charges of failing to discharge its constitutional authority, notwithstanding signals from the Election Commission that the poll could and should be delayed.

Would an electoral victory by ruling party really contribute to putting an end to the state of political turmoil the country has been in for the past three months?

A formal election victory by the Pheu Thai party would have little impact on the political standoff, as it would simply restore the situation from which the present tensions sprang.

One would imagine that the ruling party has drawn some hard lessons from the experience of recent weeks, which were propelled by the inflammatory amnesty bill and constitutional amendment to change the composition of the Senate.

However, it seems unlikely at this juncture that a quiet period of governance, in which a victorious Pheu Thai government took no steps to generate controversy, or even offered to engage in reform dialogue post-election, could persuade PDRC to abandon its protest campaign.

What role do you reckon the army will play in the coming days? Is a military coup likely should the protests intensify?

Having assumed the role and voice of mediator to date, the assumption is that the military would prefer to avoid the liability of an authoritarian intervention of the kind that it has been prepared to pursue in the past. The contemporary military may be home to some senior leaders whose personal sympathies may lie with the traditional Bangkok elites associated with the anti-government movement.

However, the broader composition of the military is presumably reflective of the political loyalties that divide the Thai polity as a whole. While past leaders have been prepared to risk stirring these tensions, the contemporary military leadership appears to be conscious of the risks. The one factor and apprehension that could change the situation is violence - the risk that violence on a certain scale would require intervention in order to ensure public safety.

How likely is a prolongation of the crisis?

The current political crisis seems likely to continue regardless of the election proceeding or being delayed in the absence of an agreement among the major political actors on steps to be taken to introduce a reform mechanism.

What do you think is the best way to find a peaceful solution to the conflict?

The major political actors must abandon their hard line positions and agree on a compromise through which priority reform measures are pursued through an arrangement acceptable to all actors, so that the election can proceed as early as is reasonably possible, with all major political parties contesting.

Soldiers wear gas masks as they stand guard at the Thai-Japan youth stadium in central Bangkok December 26, 2013. Thai police fired teargas at anti-government protesters in the capital Bangkok on Thursday after demonstrators tried to disrupt planning for a February election, the first such incident in nearly two weeks.
McQuay says the Thai military would prefer to avoid an interventionImage: Reuters

Confident in the prospect of a sixth election victory, the Pheu Thai Party could reasonably commit to priority reform measures on which the rival political factions are arguably not sharply divided, without compromising its strong political prospects and the sanctity of the electoral process and popular vote that have served it well.

This is easier said than done, but the alternatives include ongoing political tensions and distractions that put the Thai economy and Thailand's regional leadership role at risk and ignore the realities of contemporary Thailand.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation's country representative to Thailand.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.

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