The military's dilemma: how to stall another general election

11 January 2010

Amid the celebration of the New Year and the succession of exploding scandals, an important by-election result has slipped past with very little comment. In Maha Sarakham Constituency 1 with 361,743 voters, only 1,236 votes separated the Pheu Thai (PT) and Bhum Jai Thai (BJT) candidates. In the first tally, the PT candidate narrowly won, but a recount has been ordered.

Both camps had poured resources into this contest. The only way that a Democrat-led coalition can survive beyond a general election is if Newin Chidchob's BJT can take a significant number of seats away from the pro-Thaksin PT in the Northeast. In two earlier by-elections last year, BJT signally failed to make any impression. So the Maha Sarakham contest was seen as crucial.

Both sides can claim some sort of victory from this result. For BJT, this is a far better result than in the two earlier contests. Their candidate, Komkhai Udomphin, got over 10,000 more votes than the combined poll of the two pro-government candidates in the by-election in Maha Sarakham a year ago, which was annulled. He also got 40,000 more votes than when he stood as a Pheu Phaendin candidate in the 2007 general election. This result makes the pro-Thaksin vote in this province at the heart of the Northeast look a little less solid. In 2001, Thai Rak Thai won five of the six seats in the province, and in 2005 made a clean sweep with thumping majorities. A PT victory by a sliver this time could be a reason for optimism in the pro-government camp.

But PT can also read this result in a favourable light. Compared to the by-election a year ago, their candidate polled 14,000 more votes. Compared to the general election in 2007, the party's share of the total vote has hardly slipped at all. The strong showing of the BJT reflects that there was only one serious opponent to the PT . In a general election, things will be different. It is highly unlikely the non-PT parties will be so well coordinated. In 2007, 37 candidates ran in this constituency. In a general election, if PT were to perform as well as in Maha Sarakham throughout its base in the Northeast and upper North, it would win by a landslide.

This result confirms the vaguer impression conveyed by several recent opinion polls. The Democrats are solid in the South, but have slipped somewhat in Bangkok. PT continues to dominate in the Northeast and upper North. Preferences in the central region are very fragmented. Despite all the government campaigns of last year, political alignments have changed very little, if at all.

Over the last couple of weeks, Chang Noi has been travelling around the northern region. One striking change from even a couple of years ago is the sheer weight of political advertising. At any significant road intersection, there is at least one massive billboard for the PT or BJT. The BJT billboards show a local luminary along with the party's slogan, "Populism for a happy society" - a desperate attempt to lay claim to Thaksin's political legacy. The PT billboards show the local MP along with a campaign slogan attacking the Democrat-led government, especially accusing the government of saddling the country with excessive debt.

In addition to these party billboards, many MPs and mayors have erected posters wishing their constituents a Happy New Year, thanking them for their support and promising even better things to come. These posters also carry political party branding. Among all of this, the Democrats have almost no presence other than a few billboards vaunting their education policies.

Amid all the ad clutter along the highways, this political party advertising is outweighed only by the promotion of temple festivals, amulet issues and other aspects of religious commerce. All the various nationalist campaigns by the military and the Interior Ministry dwindle away around 200 kilometres from the capital. Even the collective presence of various members of the royal family seems dwarfed by political party advertising. This reflects the wealth and commitment of the political parties, but it reflects popular feelings too. There are plenty of houses displaying a message, like "Bring back Thaksin!"

This visual display, along with the Maha Sarakham poll result, further confirms what we have known for some time. The popular interest in politics is very high. Despite its access to government and deep resources, BJT is still struggling to get the ball rolling. Support for Thaksin remains strong. The Democrats have made no headway outside their base areas. In this context, it is impossible to imagine how a Democrat-led coalition could survive beyond a general election.

The Democrats will try to delay the election as much as possible. Abhisit says he is ready to dissolve the House but then interposes preconditions about constitutional changes and the easing of political tensions that effectively cancel out his promise.

The pundits like to play up conflicts between the Democrats and their coalition allies, and constantly imagine the coalition is at breaking point, but the truth is that the allied parties also have no interest in an early election. Unless their enemies can engineer a crisis, the government will try to last out its term until the end of 2011.

Even then, will there really be a general election? Why would the military brass allow another election when they will then want to overthrow the outcome, exactly as they have done on the last two occasions - first by a coup, and the second time by a parliamentary manoeuvre? A third demolition might be technically more difficult, and politically more risky. A safer route might be simply not to allow a vote to take place. This will take some effort in coming up with the pretext, but several scenarios can be imagined.