Thai Elections Held Amid Boycotts

Elections called three years early by Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra are held Sunday, with main opposition parties boycotting. The prime minister is trying to hold off a campaign to drive him from office.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The polls have closed in Thailand in a general election called by the country's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin was reelected just over a year ago with the largest mandate in Thai history. But efforts by the opposition to oust him amid charges of corruption and abuse of power prompted the Prime Minister to call a snap election three years early, in a bid to silence his critics.

NPR's Michael Sullivan is in Bangkok.

Michael, how did things go today?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

Well, pretty well, Liane, I guess, considering that the three main opposition parties boycotted the election. There wasn't any real violence reported, it was pretty calm overall.

But the boycott certainly made the election a little bit bizarre, because in some places the only candidates on the ballot were from Thaksin's Thai Rak Party. But the opposition did urge people to take the abstention ballot, the abstention box at the bottom of the ballot, and that's because Prime Minister Thaksin decided after the boycott was called that he would step down if he received less than 50% of the popular vote.

So there was incentive for opposition supporters or those who simply don't like Thaksin to go to the polls.

HANSEN: Explain to us, Michael, if the Prime Minister won so handily, and it was just over a year ago, what went wrong so quickly that he had to take this kind of drastic action?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think it's cumulative. I think a bunch of things occurred over the past several years.

The opposition has just been after him for awhile. They say he's autocratic, they say he's tried to muzzle dissent by intimidating the press, they say he's taken the law into his own hands with a campaign against drug dealers that led to many extra-judicial killings, condemned by human rights group but applauded by many in the affected communities. And the opposition also says he's been running the company as if it were his family's personal business and steering business towards his family and his friends.

But I think the icing on the cake came two months ago when the Thaksin Family sold its controlling stake in their telecommunications business for nearly $2 billion tax free. This made many people here furious, particularly here in Bangkok, among the middle and upper-middle classes. And there've been these massive street protests here ever since.

But Thaksin has remained defiant throughout. He insists he's done nothing wrong. And in fact there's no conclusive proof yet that he has. He's said repeatedly that he's not going to give in to mob rule and in fact when you think about it, he's done quite a bit toward trying to reach out and obtain some sort of compromise with the opposition. First, the offer of a new election three years early, then the offer to step down if he doesn't receive 50 percent of the vote. The opposition, they're having none of it. They just want him out.

HANSEN: So is he going to win?

SULLIVAN: We're not gonna know till tomorrow at the earliest, but yeah, I think he's going to win. And I think it's more than likely he's going to clear the 50-percent threshold that he set for himself. He's still enormously popular in rural areas and that's where most Thais live and that's because of his populist policies of cheap healthcare and easy credit for farmers and small businessmen in the rural areas. They just love him there as much as the middle class and the upper-middle class in Bangkok hate him. So yeah, I think he's going to win big.

HANSEN: But if he wins big, will it be enough to silence his critics and end those demonstrations against him?

SULLIVAN: I doubt it for two reasons. The first, for the opposition, this has gone way beyond politics or reason. This is emotional and it's personal and I think they won't stop no matter what. And the second thing is there could be a problem forming a new government. All 500 parliamentary seats need to be filled for that to happen. And the opposition boycott makes that tricky because candidates running unopposed, as many in Thaksin's party are, have to get at least 20 percent of the vote to win. And in some opposition strongholds, that's not going to happen.

So you might have to have new elections for these seats and this could go on for months. And in the meantime, I think the opposition is just going to keep at it. So gridlock looks like it's going to be the order of the day or the month or even longer.

HANSEN: NPR's Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Michael, thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Liane.

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