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Thai Election Ushers in New Leader, but Can Political Divide Be Bridged?

Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thai ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, celebrates her victory in Bangkok Sunday. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

Just a year ago, the pictures from the center of downtown Bangkok were of clashing demonstrators and soldiers; the shopping boulevards so popular with tourists set afire and awash in shredded glass, and by the time the protests were put down, at least 90 Thais were dead.

Today, a different graphic dominates the website of the English-language Nation newspaper, a map of the country showing a sea of red and islands of blue that reflect the decisive outcome of Sunday’s election: an overwhelming victory for the opposition party led by the sister of the deposed and exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatara.

As a result, Thailand will have its first female prime minister, 44-year-old Yingluck Shinawatra, whose party won 264 seats in a 500 seat parliament and who is forming a coalition that will control close to 300 seats. It’s only the second time since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in the 1930s that a political party has won an absolute majority.

But a big win does not guarantee stability. As Catherin Dalpino, a Simmons College professor and former State Department official pointed out, Thaksin also won an absolute majority in 2005 and was ousted a year later in a military coup (the 18th since the 1930s), which opened the way to years of instability, most visible in clashes between red and yellow-shirted demonstrators.

One of Thailand’s most prominent political commentators, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, wrote before the election: “Both sides of the Thai divide are now locked in what can be framed as ‘mutual assured damage’ whose manifestations have sapped Thailand’s overall vitality….”

The writer was referring to what is often described as the divide in a nation of 66 million people between the Bangkok elites — the military, bureaucracy, the royal court and many rich business owners — arrayed against the rural and urban poor and lower middle classes that Thaksin has mobilized since the turn of the decade and which have now won four consecutive elections. But they often have been denied power by coups or threats of coups, court decisions and parliamentary ledgerdemain.

And will the elites accept the results this time? John Brandon of the Asia Foundation said, “If anything, this election has shown that a majority of Thais do not want the military involved in civilian politics.”

Soon after the voting, the defense minister vowed the military would not interfere, an announcement that helped promote a rally in the stock market and an upward tick in the Thai currency, the baht.

“It will take more than one election for Thai politics to sort itself out … the whole system has been in a state of flux.”
Catherin Dalpino, Former State Department official

And Murray Hiebert, a longtime Southeast Asia correspondent and now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: “They may just be realizing that these guys are going to keep getting re-elected and they better find a way to work with them.”

Brandon predicted a post-election honeymoon, at least until the annual October shakeup of the military, which could provide a test of how the new government intends to impose its will on that key institution.

Brandon also said Yingluck faces a key decision on whether to offer amnesty or a return from exile to her brother, convicted of corruption and stripped of part of his multi-billion fortune.

“Thais have a way of muddling through,” said Dalpino. “But it will take more than one election for Thai politics to sort itself out … the whole system has been in a state of flux. It faces a very profound adjustment and maturation. It will take a long time.”

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