Elections in Thailand: The Red or Yellow Showdown?

Elections in Thailand, July 3rd, 2011

By Manassinee Moottatarn, CMC’13

Bangkok, capital of Thailand, is unusually hot and steamy at the moment, and not just because of the tropical weather. The upcoming July 3rd elections will determine the composition of the new government and the next prime minister of Thailand. Current PM Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party who is supported by the yellow shirts backed by the “establishment” will face fierce competition from Yingluck Shinawatra, party leader of the Pheu Thai Party (PTP) championed by the red shirts. Hostilities between the two sides are gearing up for a final confrontation. With images of Bangkok’s burning skyline from last summer still fresh in the Thai electorate’s minds, will the upcoming elections lead to yet another conflict or national reconciliation?

The elections are a pivotal point in Thai political history. Dr. Suchit Bunbongkorn, a political scientist professor at Chulalongkorn University says, “democracy will either retreat or move forward.”

The most influential voting bloc is the rural middle class and the “red” shirts who claim to speak for them. The red shirts present a challenge to the conservative core values of the establishment, which includes the military, government officials, and the royal court. These interest groups wish to maintain the status quo and are supported by the “yellow” shirts.

The next government will definitely need to take the rising expectations of the people in rural and poor areas of Thailand into account, especially in the North and Northeast regions, where people have experienced an exponential rise in their living standards. Also within the last decade, the gap between rich and poor has increased, intensifying the politicization of rural discontent. Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra was the leader of the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party, now the PTP with the same politicians from TRT and headed by his youngest sister Yingluck. During his time as PM, Thaksin responded well to the needs of this burgeoning rural middle class with populist policies such as allowances for the elderly, agricultural subsidies and free healthcare.  For the first time in Thai history, these disenfranchised people had a stake in the political system which has long marginalized them. Although he was ousted in a military coup in 2006, Thaksin set a precedent for future Thai politicians to pay attention to this increasingly politicized and outspoken voter bloc.

While issues of conflicting regional and class interests are at stake, politicians’ personalities seem to dominate the media discourse of the upcoming election. The media seems to be obsessed with the persona of Abhisit and Yingluck instead of the policy platforms of their respective parties. For Abhisit, he has failed to establish a connection with the poor of Thailand due to his “English gentleman” manner and affectations that he has cultivated from his years growing up in England and attending Eton College and Oxford University. These experiences seem far removed from the ordinary Thai populace. For Yingluck, it is interesting how she has a good chance of becoming Thailand’s first female prime minister while the prospect of a female president cannot even be fathomed in developed countries like the United States, where Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin failed to seize the reins of power in the male dominated political system.  But the crux of the matter is that Yingluck is not a feminist champion. She is nothing but a mere clone of her brother. Running on the slogan “Thaksin thinks, PTP does”, the PTP still clearly bows to Thaksin’s mandate even while he is in exile in Dubai, refusing to come back to serve his sentence for tax evasion and corruption.

The election prospects have a feel of a “runaway train” where “the more one tries to stop it, the faster it escalates,” said Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, renown political scientist in Thailand. Judging from the allegations of blackmail in the backchannels of Thai politics, he observes the growing signs of desperation from the conservative establishment.  In the aftermath, Dr. Thitinan does not rule out the possibility of forced PTP party dissolution or the groundless disqualification of Yingluck. This possibility is especially large especially in light of recent comments from the Commanding Army Chief General Prayuth who urged the public to “save the institution” by “electing good people”- a clear sign that the establishment has raised the stakes for this election by squeezing incumbents who do not openly protect the establishment.

Whatever the election results, all sides should respect the democratic process. “While acknowledging that the process may not be perfect, if it is allowed to be natural, then conflicts will be resolved fairly,” said Suranand Vejjajiva, a noted columnist on Thai politics for the Bangkok Post. “Blatant manipulation by the military and other shadowy groups is in neither side’s interest because it will not give the new regime any legitimacy whatsoever.”

A grace period after the elections can pacify the red and yellow camps and avoid strong passions about past grievances. However, neither side has enough confidence in the other to rule the country in the long run. Thaksin is not seen as a trustworthy negotiator and may not be able to control the entire red shirt movement which includes anti-monarchical terrorists and extremists. On the other hand, the military is seen as an outdated “Cold War fighting machine” which should not intervene in civilian politics at all.

On a brighter note, Dr. Thitinan claims that Thailand is no Myanmar- there is already too much “at stake” to turn back the democratic process towards absolute military rule.

Whoever wins, the protests are likely to continue. The next government must be able to contain widespread violence. If it fails to do so, the country will be further divided. The so- called “silent majority” of middle class Thais should serve as a moderating force in Thai politics, but they have failed to organize themselves and allowed radical groups run the election campaign instead.

All is not well in the smiling façade of the Kingdom of Thailand. But despite the tense atmosphere and the rise of conservatism around the world, Thai politicians’ should look on to the belief among ordinary Thais that differences can be settled within the democratic election and that results will be respected.

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About Adrian

formerly published under the name Wendy Qian at the Atlantic, China File and Tea Leaf Nation.
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