Bloomberg News

Thai Voters May Test Army Willingness to Let Thaksin Allies Rule

June 29, 2011

June 30 (Bloomberg) -- Opinion polls show the party allied to deposed Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra is heading for victory in the July 3 election. Once the votes are counted, there’s no guarantee it will be allowed to rule.

Pheu Thai is ahead of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrats by as much as 18 points, lifted by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, its new leader. The prospect of Thaksin allies gaining power three years after he fled a jail term for abuse of power charges is fueling concern unrest may erupt after the election. Protests left more than 90 people dead last year.

The fourth election in seven years may test the willingness of the army and royalist elite to accept the result in a country where 10 coups since 1932 underscore the challenge of delivering a stable democracy, said Paul Chambers, research director at Payap University in Chiang Mai. At stake is Thailand’s legacy of sustaining economic growth and an influx of foreign investment from companies including Ford Motor Co. and Dow Chemical Co.

“A Pheu Thai government would soon lead to demonstrations” by an anti-Thaksin movement in alliance with the military and royalists, Chambers said. “This would bring out Red Shirt demonstrators and the result would be political pandemonium,” he said, referring to Thaksin supporters who wear red in reaction to the yellow shirts worn by his opponents.

Standing next to a mall in downtown Bangkok torched after a Red Shirt protest a year ago, Abhisit told a rally June 23 that Pheu Thai was inciting its supporters to march on the capital if they win a plurality but fail to form a government. Yingluck, in an interview this month, said she would seek to rectify injustices since the coup if she won.

Military Message

A poll released June 19 by the Bangkok-based Suan Dusit Rajabhat University showed Pheu Thai with 52 percent of the vote and the Democrats with 34 percent. Of the 500 parliamentary seats up for grabs, 375 are chosen in districts and 125 through proportional representation. The poll surveyed 102,994 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus 7 to 10 percentage points.

The military “will use any institution,” including the Election Commission and courts, to thwart a Pheu Thai win, retired General Pathompong Kesornsuk, an ex-adviser to the Thai Armed Forces Command who helped lead anti-Thaksin protests in 2008, said by phone. “The military will try the way that legitimizes the second party to form the government.”

Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha urged Thailand’s 47.3 million voters this month not to pick the “same thing” in elections, the last four of which have been won by Thaksin loyalists. “You should think about how to make our country safe, how to make the royal institution safe, how good people will run the country,” he said in a June 14 interview broadcast on two army-controlled television stations.

Royal Transition

Prayuth’s comments “show some anxiety, not only among the military but also among royal circles as well,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said by phone. The traditional elite “want to make sure they have their own people in charge” in case the next government oversees the royal transition, he said.

Since taking the throne in 1946, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 83, who has been in hospital for 21 months, has been head of state through more than 20 prime ministers and nine coups. Since the 2006 coup, courts have disbanded two parties tied to Thaksin and disqualified two prime ministers backed by his allies.

Political Jockeys

Of Thailand’s 27 prime ministers since absolute monarchy ended in 1932, 12 have been military leaders, including Prem Tinsulanonda, the president of the Privy Council, a group of advisers to King Bhumibol. Two months before the 2006 coup, Prem said soldiers were like horses owned by the king, with governments serving as jockeys for a short time.

Jatuporn Prompan, a Red Shirt who is running as a Pheu Thai candidate, was jailed on May 12 after his bail was revoked for a speech insulting the royal family. Lese-majeste offenders face as many as 15 years in jail for defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent.

The specter of post-election violence has knocked 3.8 percent off the benchmark SET Index this month, the most among Southeast Asia’s biggest markets. Investors have pulled more than $953 million from Thai stocks this month.

Thai Airways International Pcl has dropped 20 percent in that time, and Minor International Pcl, the biggest operator of hotel resorts, has declined 6.6 percent. Tourism comprises about 7 percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product.

Free Electricity

Abhisit became prime minister in a parliament vote in 2008, two weeks after a court disbanded the ruling pro-Thaksin party for election fraud. The move came amid protests by the Yellow Shirts who seized the prime minister’s office complex and stormed Bangkok’s airports demanding the pro-Thaksin government resign.

The Abhisit-Thaksin showdown reflects a regional divide between a better-off south and a poorer north and northeast, from where Thaksin hails and where average income is about one third that in Bangkok. Abhisit’s party has promised a 25 percent increase in the minimum wage and crop price guarantees in an effort to win support in Thaksin’s stronghold. Fifty-two percent of the population resides in the north and northeast.

Opponents of Thaksin, who founded what became Thailand’s biggest mobile phone company, view him as a corrupt billionaire who aims to topple the monarchy and regain power from abroad, where he fled after his 2008 conviction. His supporters remain loyal after he gave them affordable health care and cheap loans.

While the Thaksin-backed party won 148 of 210 seats in the north and northeast in the 2007 election, the Democrats won 76 of 92 in the south and Bangkok. Overall, the Democrats finished with 34 percent of seats and Thaksin’s allies with 49 percent.

‘Go Underground’

If Pheu Thai fails to secure a majority, it would need to rely on smaller parties that won 17 percent of seats in the 2007 election to form a government. The party blamed army meddling for the 2008 parliamentary vote in which its coalition partners and a group of Thaksin defectors switched sides to give the premiership to Abhisit.

Military leaders want “a special government sent down from the top, instead of the people’s will,” Jakrapob Penkair, a former spokesman for Thaksin’s government who fled Thailand in 2009 after being accused of insulting the monarchy, said by e- mail. “More people will go underground if indeed a coup happens or our side is obviously cheated.”

--With assistance from Suttinee Yuvejwattana in Bangkok. Editor: Ben Richardson

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at dtenkate@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net


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