Thai politics has been out of the news since May 2010’s bloody crackdown on red-shirt protesters in central Bangkok. But any superficial tranquility hides the ongoing campaign by the government to neutralise their opponents and maximise the vote for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat Party at the election due next year.
The state of emergency declared in May has been wound back, but is still in force in Bangkok and in three strategic provinces outside the capital. Hundreds of red-shirt protesters are in prison awaiting trial on charges that range from illegal assembly to terrorism.
Nevertheless, some expressions of political discontent cannot be avoided. In late July, the government faced a by-election in Bangkok, brought about by the death of one of its MPs. This was an unwelcome test of the electoral waters for Prime Minister Abhisit who has embarked on a high-profile public-relations campaign for national reconciliation. The opposition Pheua Thai party nominated one of the imprisoned red-shirt leaders as its candidate. Offering voters the choice of an opposition figure that the government had labelled a terrorist ensured the poll would be seen as a referendum on Abhisit’s handling of the political confrontation in April and May.
The government’s candidate won the election with about 54 per cent of the vote. Yet the opposition candidate scored about 46 per cent – a defeat, but certainly not a disgrace.
Taking a longer-term view of Thai politics, the government’s modest by-election result was unsurprising. And given Thailand’s political history, the Democrat Party’s trepidation about future elections is understandable. The last time Prime Minister Abhisit’s Democrat Party won the most seats in a general election was in 1992.
Abhisit managed to become prime minister in late 2008 only after the courts dissolved the governing party aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A central demand of the red-shirt protesters was that Abhisit call a general election to test his government’s legitimacy. Talk of an early election is now off the table. According to the constitution, an election is due by the end of 2011 although some analysts suggest that such a poll could be delayed.
In the meantime, Abhisit and his government have some major challenges to address. High on his agenda is protecting Thailand’s monarchy.
Authors: Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly, ANU
Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly are Southeast Asia specialists in the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.
A longer version of this article is available here at Inside Story
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Ongoing struggles in Thailand