On Sunday February 2nd, Thailand went to the polls in a snap general election called by Yingluck Shinawatra, the beleaguered Thai prime minister who is seeking to legitimize her rule after months of crippling anti-government protests.
According to reports out of Bangkok, the general election was severely disrupted by anti-government protesters who barricaded roads and blocked access to polling stations at multiple sites throughout the capital and in the south of the country. The Thai Election Commission reported that turnout was low (barely 25 percent of eligible voters) and that voting was disrupted in 69 of 375 constituencies nationwide.
Early unofficial results as of February 4th suggest that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party won at least 300 seats (240 in the constituency system and 60 in the list system). This estimate does not include the 28 districts in southern Thailand where no candidates ran. Due to widespread disruptions and no votes having been cast in the south of the country, there are no official results as of yet. However, it is already evident that voting was disrupted in enough districts to fall short of filling the 475 (out of 500) seats needed to form a quorum in the national assembly and name a new prime minister and government.
Voting took place under a shadow of violence after a gun battle in Bangkok wounded seven people last Saturday. Clashes during last weekend’s early voting also left one protest leader dead and several others injured. To date, the political crisis has claimed the lives of 10 people and nearly 600 have been wounded.
In the wake of these elections, anti-government protesters led by Suthep Thaugsuban (Secretary-General of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee) have vowed to stage larger rallies in Bangkok and push ahead with efforts to nullify the election results. Protesters again demanded on February 3rd for the resignation of Yingluck Shinawatra and for a temporary suspension of constitutional government so that an unelected “people’s council” could “save” democracy.
The opposition Democrat Party, which supports the protesters and boycotted the elections, said on February 3rd that it was examining other legal means to nullify the election results.
The struggle over the vote is part of a 3-month-old clash which has split the country between supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and opponents who claim the government is too corrupt to rule and that she is a puppet of her brother, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
What’s Next for Thailand?
Thailand now finds itself at a crossroads with no good options on the table. Rival political factions are far too entrenched and neither side sees any incentive to compromise at this point. In the near future, there are a few possible scenarios that could come to pass:
Scenario 1: A Military Coup
The Thai military has long been seen as the guardian of the country and a check on the political class. The military is loyal only to the King and in the past many Thais have welcomed the military’s inventions into politics. Since 1932, Thailand has endured 11 successful military coups, the latest occurring in 2006 when Thaksin Shinawatra (the current PM’s brother) was removed from office. Despite calls from anti-government protesters, the military seems reluctant to get involved unless absolutely necessary. There are a few reasons behind this. For one, the military as an institution is more politicized than it has ever been. Public opinion is another factor as recent opinion polls suggest that the vast majority of Thais don’t want to see a military coup. And finally there’s some external pressure from the United States, which along with other countries has warned that there will be negative implications if a coup takes place.
Scenario 2: An Escalation in Political Violence
Thailand is more divided and polarized now than at any other point since 2010, when 90 protesters were killed by security forces clearing a ‘red shirt’ protest camp in central Bangkok. Today, military and police forces seem to have no appetite to intervene against protesters and in some cases seem to even support their movement. A real concern in the near future is that the fringe elements on both sides, including the ‘black shirts’ will target opposition protesters as they did on Saturday. This could lead to a spiral of politically-motivated violence that could either push the country into civil war or force a military intervention. Some analysts have speculated that anti-government protesters could attempt to use violence or even launch false flag attacks to force the military to intervene on their behalf.
Scenario 3: Democracy Restored
The third scenario sees remaining constituencies voting and the Pheu Thai Party forming another government with Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister. The Pheu Thai Party has the support and the numbers to win an election. And by all measures it should be Thailand’s democratically-elected government. The reality is that, on the off chance this did occur, nothing would change as the anti-government movement refuses to accept any Shinawatra-affiliated government.
But for Now: Deadlock
Thailand is currently in a state of political deadlock under the rule of a caretaker government. The Pheu Thai Party lacks the seats needed to form a government and the anti-government opposition movement is still on the streets and planning to launch a legal challenge to have the election results nullified. Both sides are accusing the other of refusing to negotiate and both appear to be digging in for the long haul.
The problem in Thailand is that democracy does not function effectively and that the tyranny of the majority is simply intolerable for the minority. Thailand’s political strife has deep roots in regional, ethnic, and economic power imbalances and political elites on both sides exploit these conflicts for their own gains – frequently to the detriment of the country. Thailand desperately needs a leader or party that can unify the nation and strengthen its institutions. However, this is unlikely to occur overnight and the situation will almost certainly deteriorate before it gets any better.