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Sunday, December 23, 2007

A return to democracy? Thailand holds its first post-2006 coup election

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Voters in the Kingdom of Thailand went to the polls on Sunday, December 23, 2007 in the first parliamentary election held since the September 2006 military coup that overthrew the elected but increasingly authoritarian and allegedly corrupt government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thailand's legislature, the National Assembly is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives; the latter has 480 members, of which 400 are elected in 157 two- or three-seat constituencies, while the remaining eighty seats are filled in eight electoral regions by party-list proportional representation.

Since a 1932 revolution brought an end to eight hundred years of absolute monarchy, Thailand has suffered numerous coups, and the country has alternated between intervals of at least nominal democratic governance and periods of military rule.
The democratic interludes were often characterized by fractious multi-party politics, weak coalition governments, and the participation of high-profile military figures in prominent leadership roles. However, in the 2001 general election the new Thai Rak Thai (TRT; Thais Love Thais) party of Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, emerged as the dominant political force, displacing the traditional parties on a populist platform of development money for rural villages, debt moratoriums for farmers and low-cost health care. Despite accusations of nepotism and cronyism, Thaksin remained highly popular among the rural poor, particularly in the northern and northeastern parts of the country. As a result, TRT won a large parliamentary majority in the 2005 general election, and Thaksin was able to form the first single-party government in the history of Thailand.

However, Thaksin's triumph proved to be short-lived. His government became even more intolerant of opposition criticism, and a snap legislative election called the following year in the wake of mass protests demanding Thaksin's resignation was boycotted by the opposition parties. The vote was subsequently invalidated by Thailand's Constitutional Court, and a fresh election was slated for October 2006, but the military staged a coup prior to the election and overthrew Thaksin, who was at the time in New York City. Corruption was cited as the reason for the coup, although widespread discontent about Thaksin's heavy-handed suppression of an armed insurgency in Thailand's predominantly Muslim south (the rest of the country is overwhelmingly Buddhist) appears to have been a major contributing factor as well.

The election is being held under a new constitution approved by voters last August - the country's sixteenth since 1932; however, martial law remains in force in 31 of Thailand's 76 provinces. TRT was dissolved after the 2006 coup and party leader Thaksin has remained in exile (for good measure, he was banned from taking part in politics for five years, along with more than a hundred prominent party figures), but a pro-Thaksin party - the People's Power Party (PPP) - has emerged as a major contender in the election. In fact, PPP leader Samak Sundaravej - an old hand in Thai politics - has made no attempt to conceal that 1) he's Thaksin's surrogate; and 2) that he wants to bring Thaksin back. In fact, Thaksin - who faces corruption charges in Thailand - has indicated he will return early next year. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party (PP), the main opposition party during Thaksin's tenure in power, is likely to emerge as the PPP's main challenger under the leadership of Western-educated, 43 year-old Abhisit Vejjajiva.

However, neither party may secure an absolute parliamentary majority, and several smaller parties may hold the balance of power, chiefly among them Chart Thai, led by former Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-Archa (another old-school politician). It's no secret that the military does not wish to see PPP in power, although they have insisted that the outcome of the election will be respected regardless of who wins. Nonetheless, it is anticipated that if no party secures an overall majority, the armed forces will exert pressure over the smaller parties to reach a coalition agreement with the Democrats.

What's less clear is what would happen if PPP wins an absolute majority. There have been rumblings about alleged PPP vote buying - in truth, an endemic problem in Thai electoral politics - and it's quite possible that the vote could be at the very least partially annulled (or PPP forcibly disbanded) on the grounds of electoral irregularities. A further military intervention cannot be ruled out, but if it takes place it may well generate far less public sympathy than the 2006 coup, particularly since the interim government put in place by the armed forces after the coup has proved to be inept, and Thailand's economic growth is now the slowest in the region. Nonetheless, the return road to democracy may turn out to be a rocky one.


In a stinging rebuke to the military, voters in Thailand gave the People's Power Party (PPP) a plurality of seats in last Sunday's legislative election. According to preliminary election results, PPP won 232 of 480 seats in the House of Representatives - nine short of an absolute majority. Meanwhile, the Democrats obtained 165 seats, while Chart Thai (Thai Nation) secured 37, Puea Pandin (Motherland) 25 and other parties captured the remaining twenty-one seats. Although PPP won the largest number of both constituency and proportional seats, the Democrats polled a very narrow plurality of the party list vote.

PPP has indicated it has the votes to form a government - the party would have a parliamentary majority with the support of either Chart Thai or Puea Pandin - potentially setting the stage for a collision course with the armed forces, which remain in a position of considerable influence under both the new constitution and an internal security law adopted shortly before the election, that grants the military the power to intervene unilaterally in the political process.