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Page last updated at 00:36 GMT, Friday, 21 December 2007

Thailand lurches back to democracy

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Election posters in Nakhon Ratchasima, northeast of Bangkok
The election comes 15 months after a bloodless coup
Coup leaders usually promise early returns to democratic rule, and often renege on that promise.

But such was the shock over the military's intervention in Thailand in September 2006, a country which had hitherto been seen as a beacon of democratic progress in Asia, that few doubted the sincerity of the generals who has seized power when they made the familiar pledge.

Thailand seemed too prosperous, too sophisticated and, well, simply too free to live under military rule for long.

And 15 months later the generals lived up to their word.

A new constitution was approved in a referendum in August and Thais go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new, democratic government.

This military interlude has been bloodless and martial law, where it has remained, has been low-key.

But the crisis which blew up over the leadership of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has not been resolved, nor is it likely to be through this election.

Justifying the coup

The generals who led the coup took a big risk.

Had it gone wrong, had there been any blood shed or resistance from Mr Thaksin's followers, it would have failed.

They had the backing of key members of the traditional elite, top bureaucrats and business figures linked to the monarchy, and some sympathy from a growing anti-Thaksin protest movement incorporating middle-class Thais and NGO activists.

A supporter of People Power Party shows a VCD of exiled premier Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok  (20/12/2007)
Mr Thaksin's new party is popular among rural Thais

But the coup was a blow to Mr Thaksin's core constituency, the rural poor, who had helped propel him to a record series of election victories.

The coup leaders needed to justify their intervention by proving their charges of massive corruption and abuses of power under Mr Thaksin.

That has not happened.

The various legal cases brought against the former prime minister are of a fairly technical nature, and have made little progress in the courts.

There is a suspicion that officials are unwilling to push the cases against him until they are sure he will not be making a comeback.

Or it may be that so many officials were compromised by their dealings with Mr Thaksin that they dare not risk going after him.

The result, though, is that there has so far been no smoking gun.

The frequently-made claims that his was the most corrupt administration in Thai history now look hollow.

Strong loyalties

So Mr Thaksin remains very popular in much of the north and north-east, where his populist economic policies had their biggest impact.

These areas have large populations and will vote for a large chunk of the 480 seats in the new parliament.

Supporters of the coup d'etat stand in front of a military tank in Bangkok
The coup had the backing of many people in Bangkok

A decision in May to ban Mr Thaksin's party, Thai Rak Thai, and 111 of its top executives from politics has not stopped his new party, the People Power Party, from moving strongly ahead in the opinion polls.

It is unlikely to win an outright majority but it may be far enough ahead of its rivals to make it impossible to keep the PPP out of government.

And the PPP is openly campaigning against the coup and for bringing Mr Thaksin back from exile.

The overthrow of Mr Thaksin has broken up the Thai political landscape, with many of the local power-brokers who had brought their support bases under his fold moving off to found their own parties.

But few of these godfathers have Mr Thaksin's electoral appeal and marketing skills.

As a result, the hope of the coup leaders that a new middle party would emerge to join forces with the Democrats, Thailand's oldest party and the main opposition to Mr Thaksin, have been dashed.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva meets supporters in Bangkok (18/12/2007)
Abhisit Vejjajiva is likely to win the middle class vote

Instead the defectors from Thai Rak Thai have splintered into three smaller parties - Puea Pandin, Matchima Thipataya and Ruam Jai Thai/Chart Pattana - none likely to win more than about 40 seats each.

The other middle ranking party, Chart Thai, is projected to win around 60 seats under its veteran leader Banharn Silpa-Archa, but no-one can be sure with whom this notoriously fickle politician, nicknamed "The Eel", will side.

For many middle-class, urban Thais the Democrats are the cleanest, most cosmopolitan party, under their youthful and photogenic leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.

But the Democrats' traditional support base outside Bangkok is in the south.

In other rural areas they have found it difficult to compete with Mr Thaksin's mesmerising promise of a government that will enrich the poor.

All the parties are now offering versions of his populist policies like cheap credit and universal healthcare.

But loyalty to the man who first introduced them remains strong.

Unstable coalition

So what will the military do if, as seems likely, the PPP wins enough seats to form the core of a coalition government?

Thai soldiers queue at a polling station in Yala province to cast their advance vote  (15/12/2007)
Thais are split between those who did or did not support the coup

Already there are complaints from PPP candidates that soldiers have been obstructing and harassing them in the regions.

The new army commander has ruled out another coup - but it is worth remembering that the man who led last year's coup, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, had also ruled out such a move before that happened.

There will surely be strong pressure behind the scenes on the other parties not to team up with the PPP.

Any government that emerges from this election is likely to be a short-lived and unstable coalition.

The split in Thai society, between those who supported and opposed Thaksin Shinawatra, and between those who backed or rejected the coup, is still there.

The promise of the coup-leaders, to heal Thailand's political divisions, has not been met.

And the real forces behind the overthrow of the Thaksin government remain a mystery, with theories ranging from business interests frozen out of access to power by the telecoms tycoon, to palace factions who felt threatened by his boundless ambition.



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