There were no real surprises in yesterday’s Thai election. Just as the polls predicted, the Puea Thai party has won a comfortable victory and its leader Yingluck Shinawatra will become Thailand’s first female prime minister. Incumbent Abhisit Vejjajiva conceded defeat overnight, wishing Yingluck well and saying his Democrat Party was ready to go into opposition.
Preliminary figures, with more than 95% of the vote counted, put Puea Thai at 44.6% of the vote for 262 seats, against 32.6% and 160 seats for the Democrats. That’s not quite as big a win as the exit polls said, but it will still give Yingluck an absolute majority in the 500-seat parliament.
Yingluck has indicated that she wants to govern in coalition, and has promised talks with smaller parties — including some that had defected to the Democrat-led government only under military pressure. Her patron and elder brother, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, also supported coalition, saying Puea Thai should “first concentrate on national reconciliation”.
Despite coups, bloodshed and political upheaval, Thai voting behavior has been shown to be remarkably consistent. Thaksin’s party, under its different names, has now won four elections in succession. Each time its strength has been in the same place: the rural northern half of the country, and especially the north-east, Thailand’s poorest region, where Puea Thai this time won 101 seats to just five for the Democrats.
The Democrats are strong in Bangkok and even more so in the south, where Puea Thai won no seats at all. But Yingluck’s party was competitive in Bangkok, finishing only 2% behind the Democrats, although winning significantly fewer seats.
In addition to the 375 constituency seats, a further 125 are allocated by proportional representation. That helps a few minor parties to get some representation, but it makes almost no difference to the relative position of the majors — the country is large and diverse enough to iron out the unfairnesses of single-member districts.
In light of the events of the past five years, this was a more peaceful and orderly election than Thailand had any right to expect. Considerable credit should go to prime minister Abhisit, who despite taking power as a result of military intervention seems to have done his best to rebuild democracy, even at the cost of his own political fortunes.
Today everyone is talking down the threat of violence and promising co-operation. Even General Sonthi, who led the coup against Thaksin in 2006 but has now turned to politics, called for reconciliation and said the “people’s voice must be respected”.
But there remains a deep undercurrent of uncertainty. The mostly anti-Thaksin Nation congratulated Yingluck in somewhat grudging fashion this morning and editorialised that her party “must learn from the past and exercise its legitimacy in a way that can take Thailand out of the years-old and sometimes violent crisis.”
Meanwhile the pro-Thaksin Bangkok Post was running a reader poll asking “Do you think political violence will occur after the election?” Latest figures were 51.9% yes, 30.1% no, and 18% for “depends on the new government”.
More than that, though, it depends on the reactions of the Thai royalist and military establishment. Their efforts to tell voters how they should think have again been repudiated. But if Thaksin really is the corrupt puppet-master that they claim, voters will see through him in the end: in the meantime, if their country is to have a chance at stability they have to accept the verdict of the electorate.