Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha votes at a local polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, 24 March, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Anusak Laowilas)

General elections were finally held in Thailand on March 24, after many delays. The following day, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister ousted in a coup in 2006 and who has been in exile ever since, wasted no time taking swipes at the ruling generals.

In an opinion piece published in The New York Times on March 25 and in interviews later with various media outlets, Thaksin reeled off a list of irregularities that he claimed were the result of the junta’s heavy-handed attempt to rig the election. These irregularities have been widely reported in local media, so his remarks were on point.

Some of the most egregious examples were not even covered – a video clip taken at one polling station near a barracks shows a soldier in camouflage walking around voting booths and peeking in, apparently to see who the grunts were voting for. Someone ought to explain to the commander-in-chief that election shenanigans are not supposed to be visible from space.

Such lack of subtlety has made the junta a rather convenient target for bashing. But the fact that Thaksin – himself a shrewd politician whose respect for law ceases when it gets in the way of personal enrichment – was able easily and speedily to claim the moral high ground has left a bad taste in my mouth. One can just as easily reel off Thaksin’s litany of abuses, which include corruption, graft, electoral fraud, tax evasion, muzzling of the press, and human-rights violations (for example his “war on drugs” that killed thousands).

This election, like all other elections since 2001, was won by a party belonging to Thaksin – in essence if not in form – called Peua Thai in its latest incarnation. Years under military-imposed ban on political activities has seen former members of parliament leaving Thaksin in droves, many of them flocking to the junta’s proxy party Palang Pracharat. That even a rump Thaksin party still won the most seats demonstrates his rock-solid support, particularly in northern and northeastern Thailand. In past elections, parties controlled by Thaksin often won the majority all by themselves.

Palang Pracharat finished in second place. The junta’s stronger-than-expected showing at the polls, notably in urban Bangkok, cannot be completely chalked up to cheating. Some may find this hard to believe, but people were willing to vote for the junta despite its unsavory conduct so long as Thaksin was kept at bay. Such is the fear and loathing of Thaksin, especially among Bangkokians who remember the Red Shirts riot in 2010 that ended with scores of people dead and downtown Bangkok in flames. (Thaksin allegedly bankrolled the Red Shirts.)

In this climate, politicians who misread the people’s mood can lose big. In the days leading up to the election, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party, which had hitherto been the closest rival to Thaksin’s and the perennial runner-up since the general election in 2001, suddenly came out and took issue with Prayut Chan-ocha’s desire to remain Thailand’s prime minister – a last-ditch gambit to win over anti-junta votes even though the Democrats gave tacit support to the last coup. The strategy backfired spectacularly – the number of parliamentary seats won by the Democrats plunged by two-thirds and the party was wiped out in Bangkok, where it had won 23 out of 33 seats in the previous election.

The Democrat Party’s self-immolation reflects how politics in Thailand remains steadfastly polarized … there is no room for the Democrats, who painted themselves into a corner by shunning both the military and Thaksin factions

The Democrat Party’s self-immolation reflects how politics in Thailand remains steadfastly polarized, with the generals currently supplanting the Yellow Shirts, whose leaders have been sent to prison. There is no room for the Democrats, who painted themselves into a corner by shunning both the military and Thaksin factions. The newly formed Future Forward party, with an ardently anti-junta stance as its main plank, surfaced out of nowhere to take third place behind Peua Thai and Palang Pracharat. The Democrat Party came fourth.

Is a strongman at the helm the only counterweight to Thaksin? Many think so. A staunchly anti-Thaksin populace has resigned to the belief that a Thaksin party is going to win in any election.

Thaksin was the first politician unabashedly to woo the working class and rural dwellers with populist programs, offering health-care subsidies and price guarantees to laborers and farmers alike. The playbook was so successful it was copy-and-pasted by other parties, although no one has come close to matching  Thaksin’s popularity or enjoyed such a reputation as champion of the poor. These programs were all well and good in theory but were plagued by massive corruption in practice.

After running the country for five years, the junta has shown itself to be no less corrupt than Thaksin and much more callous in its attitude toward democratic values. It has acquired a taste for power and is poised to retain the prime minister’s office and resume its business.

The penchant of many Thais for viewing coups as shortcuts out of political messes has, time and again, proved misguided.

Chavalit Likitvivatanavong lives in Bangkok. He holds a doctorate in computer science from University College Cork, Ireland.

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