Feb 3, 2014 | 20:10 GMT

4 mins read

Instability and Legal Challenges Will Follow Thailand's Elections

Instability and Legal Challenges Will Follow Thailand's Elections
(RUFUS COX/Getty Images)

Thailand concluded one of the country's most contentious elections ever on Feb. 2 despite a widespread boycott, prolonged street protests and violence and heightened speculation of a military intervention in the lead-up to the election date. Thanks to a heavy security deployment, the voting was able to proceed in a relatively peaceful manner. Though there will be immediate relief in the streets, the country will enter a period of uneasiness as the royal establishment raises a slew of procedural and legal challenges in the wake of the anticipated Pheu Thai party victory. In the longer term, the unsettled political arrangement behind the scenes means Bangkok will continue to struggle with political polarization that can never be resolved through an election or protests.

Despite an electoral boycott in many Democrat Party strongholds in the southern provinces and general low turnout, voting reportedly proceeded in 89 percent of polling stations across the country. Still, a quarter of the country's 48.7 million eligible voters reportedly failed to cast ballots because of disruptions, including some voters whom anti-government protesters prevented from early voting Jan. 26. The Election Commission has made clear the official results will not be announced until another round of voting to compensate for disruptions is held. This round has been delayed until Feb. 23 at the soonest, though the Election Commission appears to have left ultimate responsibility for the date in the hands of the government.

Instability and Legal Challenges Will Follow Thailand's Elections

Thailand's Voter Turnout, 1946-2014

The Pheu Thai party, which is currently leading the caretaker government, is widely expected to win the election easily, even after the two-month anti-government protests and declining confidence among rice farmers — once the party's primary supporters — over a controversial rice subsidy scheme. The political movement behind Pheu Thai has won the past five elections, and with the primary opposition party boycotting in many constituencies, victory should come easier this time. Shortly after polls closed, Pheu Thai estimated that it would take 240 of 375 constituencies and no less than 60 of 125 seats in the parliament. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra expedited the election in order to democratically counter the rising crisis that began in November 2013.

Since the early election remains unsettled, protesters from both sides can continue their campaign in support for or opposition to the election. There was hope for temporary relief to the violence in Bangkok after the People's Democratic Reform Committee withdrew two of the seven main protest camps, but the opposition has shown no signs of letting up. Moreover, behind the scenes the political opposition is already looking toward various procedural and legal challenges to follow the election.

One such legal challenge could center around the legal requirement that 95 percent of the parliament be settled within 30 days of polling. The inconclusive polls in the south could threaten this requirement. Indeed, shortly after the election, the Democrat Party announced that it would file a petition with the Office of the Ombudsman seeking to nullify the election, which the party believes contradicts the constitution. The scene was similar after the 2006 election, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party failed to win the necessary 20 percent of the vote in the Democrat-dominated southern constituencies. The Constitutional Court eventually declared the election invalid, paving the way for a military coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra. Meanwhile, just days before this election, the National Anti-Corruption Commission piled up judicial cases against the Pheu Thai government, including the investigation into the widely criticized rice subsidy scheme and the pending charge against 308 Pheu Thai politicians for trying to amend the constitution to make the Senate fully elected. (In the current state, 74 of 150 Senate members are appointed while the rest are elected.)

With various judicial levers already at the disposal of the royal establishment, an immediate military intervention is unlikely unless the situation on the streets turns drastically violent. Still, with the prospect that the election will be nullified, there is growing concern that the Pheu Thai party will mobilize its supporting Red Shirt movement or use intimidation to counter judicial challenges, potentially inviting chaos on the streets. However, any public gesture by the government to deploy Red Shirts while still in power would reflect its awareness of the government's imminent collapse.

In this most recent political episode, the royal establishment has taken steps to ensure that Thaksin's forces cannot dominate the political scene, especially in the run-up to the royal succession. But beneath the surface is an unresolved political crisis between the country's polarized political forces. Thailand's enduring political cycle is characterized by its basic insolubility: The country's traditional political economy — a ruling elite centered in Bangkok — is reaching the end of its ability to accommodate the country's rapidly changing political landscape as Thailand's rural population gains political influence. The rural masses have the numerical advantage at the polls, but the traditional elites maintain control of bureaucratic institutions, the judiciary and the military. Neither elections nor populist movements on the streets will break the impasse until both sides feel the need to seek a broader reconciliation.

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