Rather than putting an end to the widening divide in Thai politics, yesterday’s election has only served to underscore the seemingly intractable divide between the two sides of the country’s polity.

And it’s not over yet. Results won’t be announced until after another round of voting is held on February 23 for well over 2 million of the country’s 48 million registered voters who were prevented from casting their ballots by anti-government protesters on January 26, with more blocked at more than 40 polling stations yesterday.

The widespread violence that had been predicted — mainly by overly excited foreign media — has not eventuated, at least so far. But the evening before the poll, there were portents of what could yet transpire when a shoot-out at a major government complex near Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport injured six, including two journalists (one Thai, one American). One 71-year-old man may not walk again. In the country’s south, where a long-running, under-reported civil war between the Thai military and Muslim separatists has resulted in more than 5100 deaths in the past decade, a bomb blast killed four election officials.

Thailand is one of Australia’s favourite holiday spots, with close to 1 million visiting in 2013. It’s Australia’s ninth-biggest trading partner, with the balance of trade shifting in recent years from Australia to Thailand. All those Toyota HiLuxes you are buying are made in Thailand’s eastern seaboard a few hours drive from Bangkok.

The political turmoil is taking its toll on an export-based economy whose consumers have been loading themselves up with debt. The government is getting ever deeper in hock as well, after implementing an unaffordable rice price guarantee scheme and first car buyers program. On Friday, the central bank said GDP growth was now unlikely to reach 3%, a target that has already been reduced from a forecast of about 4.5% before the protests began.

Thailand is the second financial centre in the Association of South East Asian Nations, which collectively rates as Australia’s No. 4 trade partner, and serious problems in Thailand could contaminate the rest of the region. Thailand is also one of the fastest-growing foreign investors into Australia in energy, property and agribusiness.

The snap election was called by the government in the wake of months-long demonstrations by anti-government protesters, the self-styled People’s Democratic Reform Committee (an offshoot of the opposition Democrat Party), which began on October 31. The Pheu Thai government, elected in 2011, had finally overstepped its pocket-lining efforts by attempting to pass an amnesty bill that would pave the way for the return of the exiled former prime minister and corrupt billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, the older brother of current PM Yingluck Shinawatra.

The opposition stronghold is in Bangkok and the south of Thailand; the ruling Pheu Thai Party’s support comes from the poorer and more populated north and north-east of the country. It’s no surprise, then, that there was only a desultory turnout of voters at booths in central Bangkok Crikey visited, and contacts in other parts of the city reported similarly low numbers.

“The political poles in Thailand are now so extreme there are growing murmurs of a real north/south split …”

Instead of voting, the Democrat supporters celebrated “National Picnic Day” with one central Bangkok stage at Chidlom offering a procession of big-name music acts, and tens of thousands of supporters, wrapped in myriad versions of Thailand’s red, white and blue flag, descended on the protesters’ home base, a usually busy traffic thoroughfare outside Bangkok’s famous MBK shopping complex.

Tensions, which have been rising for weeks in Bangkok, began to show material form in recent days. The number of military uniforms hovering around the edge of the seven large stages and rally points constructed in the middle of major intersections in central Bangkok by protesters on January 13 has increased. (The protest sites have caused logistical headaches in the city but have failed to deliver on the protesters’ stated intention to “shut down” the city.) Security has been amped up at the city’s famous shopping malls. The dwindling number of tourists who have braved Bangkok despite 48 countries, including Australia, issuing increasingly dire warnings against travelling to the city, would have been surprised when alcohol service at Bangkok myriad bars, restaurants and retailers was cut off at 6pm on election eve for 36 hours (although the fleshpots of central Bangkok’s Silom seemed strangely immune).

Protesters in the opposition’s southern stronghold succeeded in blocking candidate registration in 28 electorates of the country’s 500 lower house seats (there are 375 electorates, with 125 other members elected on a party list system, similar to that used in the Australian Senate). This means the constitutionally required quorum of 95% of possible members needed to convene Parliament cannot be met. Another rule states that successful candidates need at least 20% of votes to win their seats, a figure unlikely to be reached by government candidates in many opposition strongholds. Along with the Democrats’ decision not to contest the poll, there’s plenty of room for the constitutional court to annul the election.

The key public message of protest leader, former deputy and backroom head-kicker Suthep Thaugsuban last night continued to be purging the Shinawatras and their cronies from politics and Thailand. But the real battle in Thailand is for the upper hand as the country’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, shows signs of increasingly frailty. The Democrats and their Bangkok establishment mates fear that the Thaksinites eventually seek a more presidential system.

Right now, Pheu Thai controls the numbers in Parliament, regularly winning the popular mandate by a margin of about 4-5 million votes, yet the Democrats still maintain control via long-dated appointments to nominally independent institutions, including, crucially, the courts. They are now using them to help ramp up their campaign against the government: the anti-corruption regulator is fast-tracking an impeachment investigation against Yingluck over the government’s rich, and the courts are mulling action against hundreds of government MPs for abuse of power. Last night, Suthep was threatening to sue Yingluck “for spending 3.8 billion baht without listening to other people who disagreed with holding this election”.

The political poles in Thailand are now so extreme there are growing murmurs of a real north/south split in which Yingluck would retreat to the family seat in Chiang Mai — and even of a nationwide civil war.

As the veneer of democracy in Thailand — a fig leaf for power plays by the nation’s moneyed elites — is slowly chipped away, it should serve as a reminder to all elected governments, including Australia’s, that their responsibility is to govern not just for the majority that elected them but for the often substantial minority that did not.

Peter Fray

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