Same old Thai stalemate

The political crisis in Thailand appears set to drag on as vote disruptions in Sunday’s general election means that at least several months will be needed before a new parliament can be put in place. While the deep-rooted schism between supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra may not be quickly resolved, the nation’s political leaders should realize that nothing will move forward in a democracy if the electoral process is not honored.

The opposition boycotted the election that Yingluck had called in a bid to end the paralysis that had been triggered by her party’s failed attempt last September to enact an amnesty bill that would benefit her exiled brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Anti-government protesters urged people not to vote, blocked the distribution of ballot boxes and occupied district offices to obstruct voting, preventing many polling stations from opening. As a result, voting could not take place in 69 of the country’s 375 constituencies. As 95 percent of parliamentary seats must be filled before a new government can be formed, by-elections must now be held in those 69 districts — a process that could take months.

In the three-month crisis that has split the nation, anti-government protesters have blocked or occupied some government institutions, disrupting the state’s administration. The opposition vows to continue the street demonstrations as they call for the prime minister to step down. Behind the split is the polarized structure of Thai politics. Opponents see Yingluck’s government as a puppet regime of her brother, who was toppled in a 2006 military coup and fled the country after being convicted of corruption and other charges. Even after being ousted, Thaksin continues to claim dominant support among the rural poor, who account for more than 60 percent of the population. The country’s urban power elite, meanwhile, accuse Thaksin of being a populist leader who gained power through money politics.

Yingluck apparently held the general election because she knew her party would win — just as Thaksin supporters have done since he came to power in 2001. And her opponents realized that they would not be able to oust Yingluck from power, therefore they boycotted the poll and are now seeking to nullify the results and demand that the government be replaced by a council made up of unelected members who would supposedly change laws to eliminate corruption and money politics.

But how can popular will be represented if an election is ruled out in a democracy? Opponents of the government should realize that any solution that bypasses the electoral process will not contribute to ending the serious divide within the nation. There reportedly are hopes that the military — part of the country’s power establishment — could once again intervene in some way to resolve the impasse, as it has done in the past. But even if it did, the result would lack political legitimacy and only result in short-term stability.

Thailand can only overcome its crisis if all political forces uphold the democratic process and respect the people’s will as expressed through free and fair elections.