Protests against the rule of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have been raging in Thailand for months now, and Sunday snap elections she called in hopes of reasserting democratic legitimacy have all the makings of a disaster. Anti-government protesters, who dominate in Bangkok, the South, and most urban areas, succeeded in disrupting early voting last weekend and are likely to attempt to prevent the premier’s many rural, poor supporters from reaching the polls this this time as well, even if protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has suggested otherwise. Likewise, the most fervent Shinawatra fans — “red shirts” — could feel so threatened that they are compelled to strike back, determined not to see their leader (whose social welfare policies have significantly increased upward mobility) brushed aside. Thailand is plagued by a regional divide, and a military with a robust history of coups and political intervention looms large.
Violence is likely, as is a divide between those tasked with maintaining order. Police are mostly loyal to the premier and not her Democrat Party opposition, whereas the military has made clear it will not tolerate frontal attacks on the protesters (thus they have largely done as they please unabated in the last few weeks, seizing government buildings and rallying without impediment). The question for the government and the region is whether participation in the vote is substantial enough to provide a fresh sheen of credibility for Shinawatra, whose detractors suspect her brother (and fugitive former Premier) Thaksin Shinawatra is running the show from abroad. Anything less than robust turnout (and Democrat Party activists plan not only to boycott the vote but, even if ordered otherwise, to put up logistical obstacles) will be a disaster for the prime minister, and might invite the army to intervene. As would the emergence of “black shirt” guerillas who have a history of violence and are significantly more militant than most Shinawatra allies.
Most likely, Monday will bring a vote count that is at once clarifying and useless. We will get a better sense of just how deep the Shinawatra clan’s loyalty is among the rural poor, and just how despised they are in the cities. As for a political solution to this national crisis, that may only come with either the return of Thaksin Shinawatra on one hand, or aggressive intervention by the military on the other.