POSTED: 7:16 a.m. HST, Jul 2, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 7:32 a.m. HST, Jul 2, 2011
BANGKOK >> He's not even in Thailand, let alone on the ballot. But five years after the military deposed Thaksin Shinawatra, the influential billionaire-in-exile is back by proxy: the dominant force in pivotal elections Sunday that many fear could trigger a new era of upheaval.
While the vote itself has boiled down to a race between Thaksin's sister Yingluck and army-backed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the poll has come to be viewed as a referendum on the divisive legacy of Thaksin's rule and the political turbulence unleashed since his overthrow.
The telecom-mogul-turned-politician rose to power in 2001, awakening a societal schism between this Southeast Asian nation's haves and have-nots. The marginalized rural poor hails his populist policies against an elite establishment that sees him as a corrupt, autocratic threat to the monarchy and the status quo. Now he's living in Dubai to escape a two-year prison sentence on graft charges.
After years of turmoil, Thailand "is at a crossroads," said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
There is hope Sunday's vote could chart a return to stability "if results are respected," Siripan said. "But if they're not, we'll be back to ground zero — more protests, more violence."
And, many fear, more bloodshed — worse perhaps than the anti-government demonstrations that brought Bangkok to its knees last year, leaving more than 90 people dead and the city of glass high-rises and decaying apartment blocks in flames.
Local polls have consistently given Yingluck's opposition Pheu Thai party a strong lead in the race for 500 parliament seats, meaning 61-year-old Thaksin may "win the elections ... in absentia," said Thitinan Pondsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn's Institute of Security and International Studies.
But the predictions have given neither Pheu Thai nor the ruling Democrats the 250-seat majority needed to form a government, meaning there will likely be fierce jockeying to win over smaller parties to build a governing coalition.
The question haunting this sharply polarized nation of 66 million people — known to tourists as "the Land of Smiles" — is what happens next?
Will the army and the monarchy accept a pro-Thaksin government or Thaksin's potential return? Will the opposition accept a continuation of Abhisit's rule if he manages to stay in power? Will the losing side take to the streets? Will there be a coup?
After Thaksin was ousted in 2006 amid accusations of corruption and alleged disrespect to the king, his supporters regrouped and won the country's last election a year later. But the two pro-Thaksin premiers who filled his shoes were forced from office in controversial court rulings handed down after enraged anti-Thaksin "Yellow Shirt" demonstrators took to the streets. The last was removed after protesters occupied the prime minister's office and laid siege to both of Bangkok's international airports, stranding hundreds of thousands of baffled travelers.
When Abhisit came to power in the army-pressured political maneuverings that followed, it was the opposition "Red Shirts" who protested — first overrunning a regional summit in 2009 that saw heads of state evacuated off a hotel rooftop, then staging last year's two-month demonstration, which paralyzed the capital and turned it into a war zone.
All this has taken place against the backdrop of growing concern about a smooth royal succession. Ailing 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been hospitalized since 2009, and any shift in the constitutional monarchy's traditional balance of power could have far-reaching consequences.
On Thursday, army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha reiterated his vow to stay neutral in Sunday's vote, dismissing rumors the military would intervene if Yingluck becomes prime minister.
But with hardened rivals further apart than ever, Thitinan said "the signs and signals" for a peaceful resolution to the crisis are not good. If anything, they "have pointed to more army intervention," he said.
"The issue is whether they (the army) would be willing to make a deal, whether they would be willing to make some accommodation" with the opposition, Thitinan said. Some speculate Yingluck would be allowed to take power in exchange for an agreement not to prosecute soldiers who took part in the coup or last year's crackdown.
The army has a history of political intervention. It has engineered 18 attempted or successful coups here since 1932, and last month, Prayuth urged voters to cast ballots for "good people," calling on the public to protect the crown. The comments were widely interpreted as a jab at the opposition and a plug for Abhisit.
The tide of recent history, though, is not on Prayuth's side. Thaksin and his proxies have won the country's last four elections. Abhisit's Democrat party, by contrast, has not won a popular vote since 1992.
Siripan said Thailand's military and elite upper classes are "trapped in an old illusion of Thailand that is not compatible with democracy."
The elite, she said, feels the rural population is "not ready to elect their own leadership because they're poor and uneducated and can be bought."
"They don't want to adapt," Siripan added. "It's a struggle to safeguard their own status quo — they're not aware that people have changed, that society has changed" over the last five years. People are more educated, more politically active, more aware of their rights, she said.
Although Thaksin is credited for opening the door to such change, he is "hardly a model when it comes to promoting democracy," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Though some see him as a savior to the poor, Thaksin exhibited a sharp authoritarian streak in office and stood accused of corruption, cronyism and abuse of power. He also launched a clampdown on press freedom and a much-criticized, brutal war on drugs that left more than 2,000 people dead.
Nevertheless, "he opened a political space that didn't exist before, and whether you like him or not, there's no other (democratic) option today," Pavin said.
Though there are plenty of differences between Pheu Thai and the Democrats, both parties are offering similar platforms on key issues: raising the minimum wage, building a nationwide network of high-speed trains, instituting universal health care and pensions for the elderly, and stepping up anti-drug campaigns.
The decision to place Thaksin's youngest sister Yingluck, 44, as the opposition's top contender has proved a master political stroke, reinvigorating the party. If successful, she will become the country's first female premier.
Yingluck has never held office, but that means she comes with clean hands — an asset given the country's recent turmoil.
Though Thaksin lives thousands of miles (kilometers) away, there is little doubt who controls the party. Thaksin has called Yingluck "my clone," and the opposition's campaign slogan — "Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts" — makes clear who's in charge.
Oxford-educated Abhisit, meanwhile, has declared the vote "the best opportunity to remove the poison of Thaksin from Thailand" once and for all.
His party spokesman Buranaj Smutharaks said this week that "this election, for better or worse, has become a referendum on whether to bring ... Thaksin back to Thailand or not."
Abhisit is staunchly opposed to that, saying Thaksin must serve his time in jail and his alleged crimes should not be whitewashed through an opposition-proposed general amnesty law.
Yingluck says there are no fixed plans for amnesty, and if such a law is passed it would be aimed at healing the country, not bringing back her brother.