Thai voters will head to the ballot boxes on July 20 to cast their parliamentary votes — again. The announcement of a new election date comes on the heels of an agreement reached between Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Election Commission (EC), which last month invalidated a February 2 national ballot.
Government leaders had hoped that snap election would assuage national tensions, on the boil since anti-government protests broke out in November 2013, calling for Shinawatra’s government to step down. However, the ballot did little but exacerbate the crisis when the Thai opposition boycotted the poll, and even stormed voting centers. The sticking point driving the persistent, if waning, protest movement is the prime minister’s brother and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from power in 2006 and lives in exile in Dubai; the opposition, led by the Democrat Party, but also supported by a largely urban and middle class base disillusioned with the current electoral system, maintains that Mr. Shinawatra is still holding the reins in Bangkok. Despite the opposition’s momentum, however, both Shinawatras remain popular in Thailand’s large rural regions. The result: a protracted political stalemate that is sapping the country’s economy.
VISUAL CONTEXT: The Shinawatra political legacy
Now the deal between Bangkok and the EC could provide a conclusion to Thailand’s six-month-old crisis, though it’s possible that Ms. Yingluck herself will be absent from the ballot; the premier is facing two legal charges that could lead to her being banned from politics. Indeed, some of her supporters are accusing the EC of favoring the opposition by giving the current legal proceedings time to wrap up. Not that the Democrat Party is endorsing the July ballot either; the opposition party has voiced anger that the new election date was announced shortly after its leader Abhisit Vejjajiva held conciliatory meetings with government heads and the Election Commission in the hopes of reaching a compromise. Party spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut said, “It’s very disappointing that all of a sudden Prime Minister Yingluck fixed the election day while earlier she agreed to meet with Abhisit to find a solution for our country.”
That no one seems to be behind the new ballot – for now at least — doesn’t bode well for either Thailand’s political stability or its economy. (The region’s second-largest economy is facing its first recession since the 2008 financial crisis). Analysts warn that regional stability is at risk as well if opposition forces succeed in replacing Sinawatra’s government with an unelected ruling council, effectively ending one of the rare democratic oases in Asia. Already, both sides are gearing for battle. The opposition is warning that it will disrupt the July ballot is no reforms are made in the interim; pro-government “Red Shirts” are promising to defend the prime minister in the streets if needed. A national divide in the making since Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 military coup looks set to deepen.