Thailand’s New Fault Line: The Right to Vote

By Marwaan Macan Markar 31 January 2014

BANGKOK — After scooping a handful of campaign flyers from a desk in her cluttered office, Leelavadee Vajropala, a first-time parliamentarian for the governing party, heads out on a recent weekday evening to meet voters. The former film star slips rolled flyers into the mailboxes of some homes and stops at small shops to chat to people who belong to her constituency, Dusit, a tree-lined part of old Bangkok that is home to the royal palace, the Parliament, sprawling military camps, and an array of shop-houses.

But the message she spreads in seeking re-election at the Feb. 2 mid-term polls is more fundamental than when she walked the same streets before the last elections, in July 2011, to make her entry into Parliament. The talk of polices that another Pheu Thai (“For Thais”) Party plans to implement if re-elected has given way to a simpler appeal—please go out and vote.

“Now the campaign is to get people to vote,” remarks Leelavadee, after speaking to a female resident and posing for a photograph with another, who remembers the still vivacious 47-year-old’s past roles in the country’s celluloid world. “They don’t have to vote for me. This is about their rights and to use the electoral system.”

Prapsiri Sinnraksaa, a food-shop owner, supports that view. “I want to use my right to vote,” the shy 41-year-old remarked following a brief exchange with the candidate. “I think many people in our area want to go and vote.”

That Thai politics has come to this exposes a new fault line in an already polarized country. It adds to the ultra-nationalists-progressives divide, the upper class-working class divide, the old capitalists-new capitalists divide and a geographic divide. The latter has been stark following five consecutive elections since 2001, where support for political parties formed by Thaksin Shinawatra, the former, twice-elected prime minister who was ousted in a September 2006 military coup, runs deep in the rice bowls of the north and northeast.

Pheu Thai, the most recent incarnation of a pro-Thaksin party, tasted victory in 2011 as a result, defeating the opposition Democrat Party, the country’s oldest party, yet perennial electoral losers for the past 20 years. The Democrats draw their support from voters in Bangkok and the rubber-growing belts in the country’s south.

Analysts say it is this string of successive defeats by the Democrats that has shaped the latest outpouring of rage on Bangkok’s streets since late October. Led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a firebrand political veteran of the Democrats, anger was first directed at the Pheu Thai government’s arrogance at ramming through a controversial amnesty bill in Parliament. As emotive for the opposition base was the alleged trail of corruption tainting the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest sister.

But it then took on insurrectionary tones. “The People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State,” as the Suthep-led movement named itself in Thai, declared its intention to “overthrow” the Yingluck administration and Thailand’s most popular political clan, the Shinawatras, headed by Thaksin, who is now living in self-imposed exiled to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption. By mid-January, Suthep drew on his network as a political godfather from the south to attract thousands of party supporters to drive up to the capital to strengthen his push to cripple the government via a “Bangkok Shutdown.”

Instead of immediate elections—which Yingluck offered by dissolving Parliament and calling for the Feb. 2 poll—to break the deadlock, Suthep fancies elitist solutions. The 64-year-old wants an unelected “People’s Council” of “good people” to run the country for at least a year to draft reforms before a poll. “There is a problem of elections in Thailand—vote-buying and electoral fraud,” he said during an interview. “Even if there is another election, the Thaksin regime will win. What we want is to uproot the Thaksin regime.”

Such rhetoric ignores the balance sheets of the two main parties at the 2011 poll. The Democrats, who were the unelected incumbents backed by the powerful military, outspent the then opposition Pheu Thai to secure a popular mandate. It forked out over US$5 million to pay for its campaign. Pheu Thai’s campaign expenses were an estimated $2.9 million.

Even respected scholars have been drawn into the fray to question the anti-elections message of the would-be revolutionaries. “Vote-buying has not disappeared. At election time, some candidates still hand out money for fear of being judged ‘small-hearted’ or ‘ungenerous’ if they don’t,” wrote Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, who have co-authored many books on Thai politics, in a December op-ed published in The Bangkok Post. “But the point is that this money is no longer determining the election result.”

That, however, has done little to dent the nightly anti-democratic speeches that are delivered from the many stages now occupying once traffic-clogged intersections in the glitzy commercial heartland of the city. Sabotaging the elections is their new line of attack. And the militant wing of this opposition-led agitation is in no mood for compromise. That was evident last Sunday, when the 2.4 million citizens who had registered to vote in advance were to exercise their rights.

Roving gangs of would-be revolutionaries, some armed with wooden clubs, laid siege on many polling stations in Bangkok. They threatened and intimidated voters from stepping into the high schools and government buildings chosen as polling venues. They were also strategic, padlocking the district offices in some areas, preventing even the ballot papers from being distributed.

Deprived of their civic rights, consequently, were over 440,000 people after the opposition-backed thugs shut down 45 of Bangkok’s 50 polling districts. The same suppression unfolded in 12 southern provinces, where 42 polling districts were unable to receive advance voters.

Last Sunday’s fiasco affirms a view Thonchai Winichakul, one of Thailand’s most internationally celebrated scholars, has advanced in the wake of the opposition-led efforts to cripple an elected government. “The fault line is ‘electoral democracy or else,’” the professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the United States, explained in an interview. “‘Electoral democracy or else’ has become a representation of deeper structural tension and political ideology and values in a hierarchical society like Thailand.”

It is this division that will be tested when the country’s 48 million eligible voters go to the polls on Sunday, which the Democrats are, for the second time in eight years, boycotting. That the country will be on a knife-edge, certainly Bangkok, appears likely as Suthep has called on his army of anti-democrats to shut down the over 6,000 polling stations in the city.

A six-point notice now making the rounds in the capital illustrates what is at stake on Feb. 2. Voters are being advised to prepare for intimidation, including news updates about “what time the mob will mobilize.” Unprecedented tips are offered about how to dress for polling day: “Wear clothes that make you ready to move and ready to go through all situations.”

For voter solidarity, the fourth point suggests: “Go together with others as a team—it will be safer than to go alone. Go with your relatives for a democratic atmosphere, helping each other if there are obstacles.”

Such a tense atmosphere about the right to vote has prompted legal experts to sound a warning about Thailand’s notorious, coup-prone history, which has had 18 putsches since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Besides the powerful military, the politicized judiciary has also left its mark, bringing down a pro-Thaksin government in December 2008 following a controversial court case.

“Any acts that deprives people [of their right] to choose their government—voters’ power—through military or judicial or any other intervention will, in my opinion, be seen as a coup,” Ekachai Chainuvat, vice dean of the law faculty at Bangkok-based Siam University, noted in an interview. “People now are not stupid. You cannot keep them down all the time. They will rise up and that will change the face of the country.”