Prolonging Crisis Through Election in Thailand

The recent election in Thailand was not only one of the most bizarre, but also “pointless” elections in recent memory, says Aim Singpeng.

By: /
13 February, 2014
SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political Science, McGill University

The February 2 election in Thailand was not only one of the most bizarre, but also “pointless” elections in recent memory. “Missing” polling stations, locked up ballot boxes, an M16 shooting match, and a complete boycott by the second largest political party are among the many incidents that characterize the recent election in this Southeast Asia nation. There was little campaigning by any political party and the streets of the capital, Bangkok, were jammed by anti-election protesters. The government pushed for an election only to find out that it did not resolve, but instead prolonged, the ongoing conflict.

So what was the election for?

The Pheu Thai party, under the leadership of Yingluck Shinawatra, called a snap election late last year to find a solution to new round of massive protests that had ground Bangkok to a halt. These protests followed the government’s disastrous decision in 2013 to pass amnesty bills, seen by many as a way to exonerate the exiled, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, who was ousted from power in military coup and sentenced to prison for corruption.

The protest movement, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), was largely led by the opposition party in parliament, the Democrat Party. The Democrats, who have failed to win an election since 1992, decided to pursue street politics full-time and walked out of parliament to fight for power not through the ballot box, but through the streets. Building upon the frustration of the various groups disaffected by Shinawatra’s rule, the Democrats saw an opportunity to mobilize its supporters to not only oust Pheu Thai, but to also put an end to electoral democracy. As hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters poured into the streets and seized key government offices, Prime Minister Yingluck felt the only way out was to call an election, a easy decision given that she knew that it would lead to her party’s inevitable victory. The PDRC retaliated with more protests and pushed for a “No Vote” campaign asking Thais to forgo their voting duty (Thailand has a mandatory voting policy). As Election Day approached, violence erupted between protestors and the government, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency.

On the day itself, the election was marred by irregularities and violence from the beginning. The candidate registration saw tear gas used and barricades erected while an estimated 2 million voters were unable to cast the ballots on a separate, advanced voting day due to protests. When Election Day finally rolled around, nine provinces in southern Thailand, the Democrats’ heartland, had no voting at all, while the overall turnout was 47 percent – the lowest in decades and a far cry from the 75 percent turnout in the previous two elections. The No Vote movement is believed to have succeeded in keeping 10 million Thais at home. As a result, the PDRC announced a victory in its anti-election campaign. Meanwhile, the government suffered significant declines in their own strongholds in the North and Northeast of Thailand. And while Pheu Thai will emerge as a clear winner – given it ran unopposed – the election weakened the incumbent party while boosting the legitimacy of the opposition movement.

Despite PM Shinawatra’s hopes, the election did not provide an escape for the government. In the past few days, the very constitutionality of the election has been called into question and the pressure to nullify it is mounting. Moreover, the PDRC has used the unpopular election as leverage to prolong its street protests while its legal team pursues the dissolution of the Pheu Thai party. Looking into the future, the political conflict in Thailand will surely drag on as both sides raise the stakes in their fight for power.

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