Military's backing will ensure win for Abhisit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 May, 2011, 12:00am


Thailand is gearing up for an election that will do little on its own to end years of polarised politics and social divisions. Tensions are rising in Bangkok over fears of a resurgence in violence and even the possibility of a coup.

However, it is imperative to examine the rules of the political game and how they have changed.

The conflict can no longer be viewed as a ready-made division between the yellow-shirted urban middle-class critics of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his red-shirted northern and populist supporters.

Many are incorrectly forecasting the July 3 poll to be a close battle when, in fact, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's cash-rich and military-supported Democrat Party is highly likely to overcome the challenge presented by the Peua Thai party, the electoral vehicle for the country's 'red shirt' movement.

The key is the role of the military. Abhisit's government is the product of the last coup, in 2006. The military must therefore be considered to be politically motivated at all times. Moreover, fighting at the Cambodian border has presented the army with an opportunity to galvanise national sentiment behind it.

After the deadly clashes in recent years, there are fears that the election will push the country towards violence again. But these fears are misplaced, given the military's firm control and assurance that it would not allow a Thaksin-connected government to take power.

Besides, the 'red shirt' movement has fragmented and is under close surveillance. Their more radical plans for agitation could also be stifled by their inability to work without the Peua Thai party.

In the longer term, the 'red shirts' may indeed regroup and pose a more direct challenge to the establishment. This in turn could result in a more brutal crackdown.

Abhisit will secure victory with the military's backing. But the election will not heal political divisions.

More positively, however, last year's political violence and the potential for more social rifts and government dysfunction did not prevent Thailand from recording one of the highest gross domestic product growth rates among Southeast Asian economies. Its private sector has learned to operate under the long-standing political and social conditions.

What remains to be seen is whether the 'red shirts' will be able to disengage from Thaksin and form an independent, non-violent political challenge that reflects the aspirations of their rural supporters, without alienating the urban middle classes who have done well under the current regime.

Brittany Damora is a risk consultant with AKE Ltd, an international security and risk analysis firm