Will the 2 February elections fix Thailand?
Thailand is scheduled to hold a snap election on 2 February; this comes amid a formidable anti-government campaign against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her ruling Pheu Thai Party (PTP), which has been ongoing since 31 October 2013. The elections will take place in spite of the recommendation of the Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court to postpone the poll on account of political instability.
Bangkok has witnessed recurring episodes of protracted, large-scale political demonstrations and security crackdowns since 2006. In that year, a political crisis resulted in a military coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, older brother of Yingluck. Since then, the political environment has remained deeply polarised.
The current episode of political instability has primarily been instigated by newly formed civic organisation, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). The PDRC is strongly pro-Democratic Party (DP) and anti-PTP. In response to the persistent protest action, Yingluck dissolved the country’s Parliament in early December 2013 and called for fresh elections. The PDRC and DP outright rejected this decision. Rather, they have called for Yingluck to step down as head of the caretaker government and for power to be transferred to an unelected people’s council. The opposition groups allege that snap elections will not be effective until electoral reforms are implemented. While Yingluck has thus far refused such demands, the DP’s decision to boycott the elections and the sustained anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok continue to fuel the PDRC-led anti-government campaign.
The Bangkok Shutdown
On 13 January, the PDRC led a mass occupation of several major city intersections in Bangkok, which have been ongoing since. The ‘Bangkok Shutdown’, as it is commonly referred to, has led to widespread transport and business disruptions in the central, commercial areas of the city. Moreover, the shutdown resulted in a marked increase in tensions and violent incidents. Targeted shootings, altercations between protesters and security forces, clashes between rival protesters and low-level bombings in primary protest areas have frequently been reported in the city since early January. At least ten people have been killed and more than 450 injured in this violence.
In response, government implemented a 60-day state of emergency across Bangkok and neighbouring provinces on 22 January. The emergency decree grants security forces the power to impose curfews, detain suspects without charge, censor media and ban political gatherings. The decree has not eased tensions in the capital. Sporadic protests continue to be reported outside of government buildings and several low-level incidents of targeted violence have since been reported.
The role of the military
During previous episodes of political turmoil, namely in 2006 and 2010, the Thai security forces acted as primary powerbrokers. However, they have thus far been reluctant to intervene in the political impasse. While the emergency decree grants wide-ranging powers to the police and the army, both agencies have avoided significant confrontation with protesters. The military has on numerous occasions expressed its neutral position in the matter, expressly denying the possibility of a military-led coup. On their part, this more circumspect approach is purposeful. Should the military take the PDRC’s bait and intervene, the possibility that the situation will rapidly degenerate into violence remains significant. Given their already tarnished reputation for bringing about an extrajudicial resolution to prior episodes of political turmoil, it is likely that they will remain unreceptive to provocation.
Looking beyond the election
Initial forecasts indicate that it is probable that the PTP will win the 2 February elections. However, in consideration of Thailand’s long-standing and deeply polarised political environment, the possibility that they will bring about an immediate and sustained improvement to the situation remains unlikely. Although pre-election violence has thus far been relatively small-scale and targeted in nature, posing only an incidental risk to foreign nationals, further incidents of violence are anticipated, both in the run up to and immediately following the polls. In addition, the result of the election itself could well provoke wider unrest or instability that could pose a more overt threat to tourists, business visitors and expatriates.