Saturday, July 2, 2011

Thailand's election

Who wins Thailand’s election matters less than how the loser copes with defeat

THAT Thailand is holding a general election at all on July 3rd is welcome. That the campaign to date has been more peaceful than expected comes as a relief. After an army coup in 2006 ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister now living in exile in Dubai, politics in Thailand fled parliament for the streets, leading to colour-coded stand-offs and violence: last year central Bangkok became a battlefield, when more than 90 people died during the suppression of protests by pro-Thaksin “red shirts”. Now, against recent odds, many Thais dare hope that the election will mark a clean break from the recent gridlock and violence, and that politics will move back from the streets to parliament. After all, that is what both main parties say they want.

Both parties also make a play of listening to the concerns of the large numbers of poor Thais who have long felt marginalised in an over-centralised country dominated by a Bangkok elite. These have long been Mr Thaksin’s electoral base, which has been re-energised by a woman whom Mr Thaksin calls his “clone”: his good-looking younger sister Yingluck, head of the Pheu Thai party. But the Democrat Party, led by the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has also borrowed Thaksinite prescriptions, such as promises of free or cheap access to health care and education.

Puppet versus clone

Mr Abhisit and his key government ally, the finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, say they are cosmopolitan, fiscally conservative market liberals. But they have not ruled as such. And the prime minister has one huge point against him: he owes his position to an army-backed stitch-up. However well-meaning, he has been shaped by events instead of controlling them. The suspicion remains that in a crisis he is still the puppet of what is often described as the “irresistible force” of the army and the monarchist establishment.

Meanwhile, Ms Yingluck is running a slick and brilliant campaign. She deserves credit for a conciliatory tone. She promises not to avenge the coup or to rush into pardoning and bringing home her brother. But there are doubts about her sincerity, worries about her inexperience and a real fear that her brother may overrule her and rush home. His unbrokered return would probably be disastrous, taking the country back to the brink of breakdown. Another risk is that Pheu Thai’s spending promises prove ruinous; though with luck, Ms Yingluck—a successful businesswoman in her own right—has the nous to recognise that Thailand cannot afford her most extravagant promises.

Pheu Thai has pulled ahead in the polls. The powerful people in the military and monarchist camps who are used to running Thailand do not like this. Having overthrown Mr Thaksin in a coup and backed the toppling of elected pro-Thaksin governments through parliamentary and legal manoeuvres, the army will not cheer a Pheu Thai victory. But it has amply showed what a mess it makes of politics, and should stay firmly in its barracks now. Whatever the doubts about Ms Yingluck, if Thais vote for her their choice must be heeded.

Mr Abhisit’s other powerful supporters among the monarchists and the Bangkok rich are similarly loth to accede to the electorate’s infuriating habit of returning unacceptable governments. They too must accept the result, whatever it is. Pheu Thai is more likely to win a plurality than a clear majority and then try to entice a few small, venal parties into a governing coalition. If it handsomely beats the Democrats yet is kept from power by a blocking coalition or by the disqualification through the courts of some of its candidates, its supporters will feel, yet again, that they have been cheated. They may abandon hopes for change through the ballot box.

The election was the easy part. The difficult bit comes now. Two huge issues—devolving power away from Bangkok and defining the future role of the monarchy—were ignored in this campaign. If they are to be addressed, the normal process of government must resume; and for that to happen, the losing party must learn to behave as a loyal opposition. The Economist

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