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Analysts: Thai Political Parties Competing With Very Different Visions

  • Daniel Schearf

Opposition leader of Phue Thai party, Yingluck Shinawatra, center, flashes a number one sign as she arrives for the registration of constituency candidates competing in upcoming general election in Bangkok, May 24, 2011.

Opposition leader of Phue Thai party, Yingluck Shinawatra, center, flashes a number one sign as she arrives for the registration of constituency candidates competing in upcoming general election in Bangkok, May 24, 2011.

Thailand’s political parties are registering candidates this week for a July 3 nationwide election. The vote is expected to be tightly contested battle between the two leading parties: the Democrat Party and the opposition Pheu Thai Party. Political analysts say those parties are competing on two very different visions: continued rule by the country’s traditional elites or a return to the populist policies of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

This time last year in Thailand, the country was gripped by violent clashes in central Bangkok between security forces and opposition protesters calling for the dissolution of parliament.

A year later, with a new election just weeks away, the leading candidates of the two main parties are staying away from divisive rhetoric as they rally their supporters in the race to fill 375 parliament seats.

The two main parties are the ruling Democrats of now caretaker Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the opposition Pheu Thai party led by Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva spoke to reporters Tuesday after leading Democrat candidates to register for the election.

Abhisit said he chose qualified applicants to serve the people and not only in Bangkok. Abhisit added that party leaders travel to other provinces and give moral support to applicants there who vow to serve the country to move forward.

The opposition Pheu Thai party's number one candidate, Yingluck Shinawatra, is also striking an inclusive tone in her public appearances.

Yingluck said today the party sent applicants for all 33 constituencies and opinion polls show they are gaining more support. Yingluck noted the Pheu Thai Party and all of their applicants are ready to present policies to serve all the people.

Despite the inclusive rhetoric, Thai political analysts say both leaders are backed by powerful interests that have divided the country in recent years and appear no closer to reaching a compromise.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Thai politics observer at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He says the vote is basically a contest between traditional elites in Bangkok and supporters of Thaksin in the rural north.

"We are looking at a head on collision between two power blocks," said Pavin. "On one side led by the Democrat party, which represents the old interests, you know, of the palace, the military, the big businesses, and also, you know, the senior bureaucrats. Whereas Yingluck, she has emerged as a representative of the Thai poor, especially those in the north and the northeast region who have all these years been ignored by the traditional elite."

Critics say Yingluck, a wealthy business executive, will be used as merely a front for her brother to return to power.

Thaksin Shinawatra is a billionaire telecoms tycoon who won over the countryside through populist policies that brought money and development projects to the rural poor.

His detractors say he was corrupt, authoritarian, and undermined the revered monarchy, which he denies.

Although he was twice popularly elected, political analysts say Thaksin was seen as a threat to traditional powers in Bangkok.

He was ousted by the military in a 2006 coup and fled into exile to avoid jail time for corruption charges.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. He says there is no doubt Yingluck is a stand-in for Mr. Thaksin who has been actively leading Pheu Thai from exile.

"It's not camouflaged in any way," Thitinan noted. "In 2007, 2008 we had a Thaksin proxy government. But, it was more indirect; Samak Sundaravej, the prime minister in early 2008, and then Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law. In this case, Thaksin wanted to be known that Pheu Thai is his party, Yingluck Shinawatra is his younger sister and his representative."

Those successive governments loyal to Thaksin were removed by controversial court orders. Their parties were dissolved and their politicians were banned from politics for five years.

Abhisit’s Democrats then rose to power, sparking demonstrations by Thaksin’s Red Shirt supporters who say their vote was stolen by Bangkok elites.

Tens of thousands of Red Shirts took over large parts of Bangkok last year demanding a new election and fair treatment for their leaders.

When negotiations broke down, Abhisit ordered the military to clear the protesters by force resulting in more than 90 deaths, most of them civilians.

Pavin says Yingluck is as much a proxy of her brother as the Oxford-educated Abhisit is a proxy of the establishment.

"Because the way he has come to power, because of the help of the military, and because of that I think he owes many people, especially his backers in the army and also in the elite circles - because of that, I think it has constrained him to become more independent or autonomous," Pavin noted.

Pavin says despite the turmoil Abhisit has managed to steer the country’s economy in the right direction.

As for his opponent, even though she comes from a politically savvy and business oriented family, it is less clear if Yingluck can do the same.

Chris Baker, an author on Thai politics, says it would be extremely historic if Yingluck is elected as Thailand’s first female prime minister. He says at any time in history a maximum of only about 15 percent of Thai lawmakers were female.

"And, you find the same kind of proportion running through all aspects of politics whether it's local councilors or even political journalists, you know, there's a very strong identification of politics with masculinity," Baker explained. "And so, it's quite a barrier for anyone to get over."

Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party has pledged that if it wins the election, it will issue an amnesty for all charged in relation to the 2006 coup, which could pave the way for Thaksin to return to Thailand.

Many political analysts doubt Abhisit’s backers would allow a party aligned with Thaksin to take power, let alone engineer his return.

Provincial-level political violence has already been reported and many worry that, whichever side wins, post-election turmoil is likely.

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