Bangkok Six will signal the way

12 July 2010

The by-election due in Bangkok Constituency 6 on July 25 is unlike any poll in Thailand's past. The contest is not between parties but between colours. The previous poll in 2007 was almost a dead heat, so the result this time will signal how popular opinion has been changed by the turmoil of the past two years, and especially by the May events. The implications could be enormous because the government's parliamentary majority is a lot shakier than it looks.

The constituency is on the northeast corner of the capital, where the city crumbles into the countryside. Parts are still quite rural in feel, with paddy fields and market gardens. Elsewhere there is housing for people working in the Minburi factories and housing estates of the new middle class. The constituency straddles the boundary between the largely Democrat wards in the city proper, and the pro-Thaksinite area on the outskirts.

The constituency returns three MPs. At the last election in 2007, the Democrat candidates came first, second and fourth, while the pro-Thaksin PPP candidates came third, fifth and sixth. No other candidate came close. It was clearly a two-party contest with voting by party. The Democrat candidates averaged 104,869 each, and the PPP candidates 97,997, a difference of less than seven thousand in a constituency which then had 365,720 registered voters. Only two per cent of the voters need to change their minds to change the result.

In the two elections in 2001 and 2005, this area voted solidly for the Thai Rak Thai. Then, the constituencies were single-member, and the boundaries were not quite the same. In 2005, TRT won the three seats with 56, 62, and 61 per cent of the vote, respectively. No Democrat was in spitting distance at either poll.

The Democrats might feel confident that their better showing in 2007 indicates the constituency is already swinging their way. But the 2007 poll was distorted by the Army using lots of money, and hence the result may not be indicative or repeatable. In short, this constituency is a true marginal and so the result will be heavy with meaning.

And that meaning is colour-coded. Panich Wikisreth is not so much a Democrat as a yellow, a protégé of Kasit Piromya, a fanatical yellow-shirt. The New Politics Party was somehow persuaded to exit the contest so that the yellow vote would not be split. Kokaew Pikulthong is not so much a Pheu Thai member as a red. He took a prominent role in the recent demonstrations, and is now in jail on the ridiculous terrorism charge. Panich has a background in local government and fully qualifies as a member of the establishment, an ammat. Detention confirms Kokaew as a member of the unfree masses, a phrai. The symbolism is exquisite.

The result will offer a reading on public feeling about red and yellow. Some people argue that the violence of May will have turned people away from sympathy with the reds. Others are guessing that the heavy-handedness of the crackdown and the government's subsequent triumphalism will have increased sympathies for the reds. The election will show which of these predictions is right.

And that signal could have momentous impact because of the current state of parliament. The 2007 constitution, and the manoeuvre that brought the Democrats to power eighteen months ago, have taken parliamentary politics backwards over a decade to the shaky situation of the mid 1990s.

Of the 474 MPs, 360 belong to the two main parties. The other 114 hold the balance of power. Nominally they belong to six different parties. In reality, these parties are only temporary containers, like cups for holding paper-clips. The biggest of them is Pheu Pandin. While the party's name translates as For the Realm, it really should be For Myself. All these middle-ground parties break down into a dozen or more small, opportunistic factions. Many of the faction managers were players in the mid 1990s politics, and are now under a political ban. Pheu Pandin was invented by the Army prior to the 2007 election in a vain attempt to bind these factions into something more solid. Vain hope. These factions are the loose gravel that makes Parliament inherently unstable.

The result in Bangkok 6 could make that gravel slide around. The government still needs to win a parliamentary vote on the budget. In this vote, ministers cannot participate. If the Pheu Pandin factions that turned against the government in the recent no-confidence vote were to repeat that alignment over the budget, the numbers are very close indeed. If Bangkok 6 failed to return a Democrat, the budget division might be too close to call. Yet, probably this vote is not quite so critical. One such division can be fixed by a deal. The Pheu Pandin rebels have already said they will fall into line.

But if Bangkok 6 swings in the red direction, the medium term impact on Parliament could be critical. MPs in the middle ground will start to worry about how they will be treated by the electorate at a future poll if they are clearly identified with this coalition. Then this government coalition will look more and more like a battered, leaky boat with rats lined up along the gunwales, staring out across the choppy sea, each agonising over when to jump, not too soon that they fail to make landfall, and not too late that they go down with the ship. The lemming rush could start any time.

Equally, if the Democrats win a solid victory in Bangkok 6, the government will be more secure, and the prospect of a Pheu Thai victory in a future general election less certain.

So Bangkok 6 is not just another by-election but a contest that the Democrats and their various backers simply cannot afford to lose. For this reason it may not be at all like a normal poll, and may not be decided by normal means.