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Exit polls indicate landslide win for Thai opposition party

Party aligned with ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra looks set to win – but faces serious national issues if it forms the next government.

Thai opposition party leader Yingluck Shinawatra showing her ID card before polling today.
Thai opposition party leader Yingluck Shinawatra showing her ID card before polling today.
Image: AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong

THE OPPOSITION party allied to ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was poised for a landslide victory in fractious Thailand’s elections today, easily capturing the majority needed to form a new government, according to two respected exit polls.

The Election Commission has yet to release results, but is expected to do so later today.

If confirmed, the outcome would set the stage for Thaksin’s youngest sister, 44-year-old Yingluck Shinawatra, to become the Southeast Asian kingdom’s first female prime minister.

Such a large mandate to govern could make it easier to navigate a way out of out of the political crisis that has plagued Thailand since Thaksin’s overthrow in a military coup five years ago. But the question remains whether the nation’s elite power brokers, including the monarchy and the army, would accept the result.

Ousted

The army toppled Thaksin in 2006, and controversial court rulings removed two of the pro-Thaksin premiers who followed after a party allied to him won elections intended to restore democracy in 2007. That chain of events paved the way for army-backed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to assume power — which ultimately sparked the massive anti-government protests which brought Bangkok to its knees last year, leaving 90 people dead, 1,800 wounded and the glittering city’s skyline engulfed in flames.

“The future depends on whether the traditional elite will be willing to accept the voice of the people,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told the Associated Press.

The more Yingluck’s party wins by, he said, “the more stable her government will be, the more difficult it will be for the elite to do anything against it.”

Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha reiterated his vow last week to stay neutral in the vote, dismissing rumors the military would stage another coup.

At her party headquarters, Yingluck held back from declaring victory. “I’m glad,” she told a cheering crowd. “But I’d rather wait for the official results.”

Buranaj Smutharaks, a spokesman for Abhisit’s ruling Democrat party, issued a statement saying simply: “We believe all sides will respect the results.”

Exit polls

Two exit polls were released after polls closed. One, the Suan Dusit university poll, gave Yingluck’s party 313 of 500 parliament seats, compared to 152 seats for the ruling Democrat party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Another poll by Bangkok’s Assumption University gave Pheu Thai 299 seats compared to 132 for the Democrats.

The photogenic Yingluck has long been seen as the front-runner in the vote. Her popularity is almost entirely due to fact that she is Thaksin’s proxy. Thaksin, 61, has been legally barred from politics after a corruption conviction and lives in a luxury residence in Dubai to avoid a two-year jail sentence for graft.

His ascent to power in 2001 changed Thailand forever, touching off a societal schism between the country’s haves and long-silent have-nots. The marginalised rural poor hail his populism, while the elite establishment sees him as a corrupt, autocratic threat to the status quo and even to the revered constitutional monarchy.

That schism has played out through pro- and anti-Thaksin street protests since the 2006 coup, and on Sunday it hit the ballot box. The vote, many believe, is largely about the divisive legacy he left behind.

Violence

For a nation of 66 million people known to tourists as “the Land of Smiles,” much is at stake.

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Last year’s demonstrations marked some of the nation’s worst violence in two decades and left Thailand’s reputation for stability in tatters. Holding the ballot was one of the protesters demands, though they wanted it held last year.

Oxford-educated Abhisit has used his campaign to blame the opposition and its supporters for burning Bangkok last year, saying a vote for Yingluck would be a vote for chaos. He has also declared the poll “the best opportunity to remove the poison of Thaksin from Thailand.”

Abhisit and his allies believe Yingluck is plotting Thaksin’s return through a proposed amnesty that would apply for political crimes committed since the coup. Yingluck says it is aimed at reconciling all Thais — not just her brother.

There is speculation, too, that the army has brokered a deal with Pheu Thai allowing Yingluck to govern in exchange for a promise not to prosecute soldiers who took part in last year’s crackdown on the demonstrators or the 2006 coup.

Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the most important challenge facing the incoming government will be resolving the nation’s divide.

“Everyone is talking about political deals, but no one is talking about how to end impunity, restore freedom of expression and hold perpetrators accountable no matter how high up they are,” Sunai said. “Without that, Thailand will never able to get out of this cycle of violence and turn itself around.”

Although Thaksin is credited for awakening what has become a democratic movement among the country’s marginalised poor who long stood silent, his opponents say he is no champion of freedom. During his time in office, Thaksin was loudly criticised for a sharp authoritarian streak and stood accused of corruption, cronyism and abuse of power.

- AP

Read: Thailand’s transgender population say ID cards confuse at polls >

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