Thailand goes to the polls – or tries to

Central America isn’t the only place voting today. It’s also the occasion for the snap election in Thailand, called by prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in an attempt to end the crisis that has gripped the country since November – an attempt that so far has been strikingly unsuccessful.

There’s no doubt about the election result, in the narrow sense: the opposition is boycotting the polls, so Yingluck’s government will win clearly. But the opposition’s tactics have already had an effect; there were enough seats in which the nomination process was disrupted to ensure that the new parliament will not be able to be legally constituted until by-elections can be organised.

More disruption has been happening today, although it’s not yet possible to assess its overall scale. Lindsay Murdoch’s reports for Fairfax remain compelling reading. You can also follow the news through the English-language Thai press: the generally pro-Yingluck Bangkok Post and the pro-opposition Nation.

There are some stirring stories there; I particularly liked the one about pro-government voters in Ratchathewi district, in Bangkok, who “made their own ballot boxes and papers” after opposition protests prevented the distribution of the official ones.

The geographic shape of things is once again predictable. The south is solid opposition territory, so voting there is sporadic at best. Bangkok is heavily contested, with both sides well represented; while the north is the government’s heartland, and voting there is expected to proceed with little difficulty.

Since there is not much in the way of opposing candidates, there’s not much point spending time explaining the Thai electoral system. My report on the 2011 election provides some details for those who are interested. Note that there is a party-list proportional representation component, which explains why voting has to take place (at least in theory) even in constituencies where no-one was able to nominate.

Yingluck primarily wants two things from today’s poll. Firstly, for a large turnout to establish that the majority of Thais are still on her side and willing to be counted on the side of democracy. And secondly, for the opposition to discredit itself by being seen to instigate violence against those who are trying to vote. (The fact that there’s a tension between these two things is just one of her many problems.)

The Election Commission had argued for a delay in the voting of up to four months, but even after a court ruling that delay would be constitutionally possible, the government rejected the idea. And indeed it may be that delay would have just prolonged the country’s paralysis without helping anything.

No-one really knows what’s likely to happen next. Perhaps a fresh electoral mandate, flawed though it will obviously be, will give Yingluck the nerve to order stronger measures against the protesters – or alternatively (or even simultaneously) some new offer of compromise. Or perhaps the opposition will be motivated to reconsider some of its tactics.

More likely, it seems, is that the stalemate will continue until someone blinks or makes a wrong move. Or until an external force (the courts, the army, the monarchy, or quite possibly all three) decides to take a hand.

The last election, in 2011, produced a brief flurry of optimism as it seemed that Thais had learned to settle their differences peacefully. But this time there is little prospect of an election bringing resolution. The opposition’s campaign seems to have taken Thailand back to the era when political questions were settled in the streets, not at the ballot box.

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