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Election Fails to Resolve Thailand's Political Deadlock


Thailand has just held a general election, an election its prime minister had called in hopes of ending street demonstrations calling for his ouster. Results are not yet in, but it's already clear that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra won easily. No surprise, since the three main opposition parties boycotted the election.

Joining me now from Bangkok is NPR Southeast Asia correspondent, Michael Sullivan. Hello.


Hello, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What is at stake there in Thailand, of course, but also maybe generally?

SULLIVAN: Well, what's at stake is whether or not Prime Minister Thaksin actually stays in office. And I don't think that yesterday's vote is going to satisfy the opposition. And, in fact, even though it's clear that his party won, it's not at all clear that the win was big enough, and I'll tell you why. Even though the opposition decided to boycott, Prime Minister Thaksin promised to step down voluntarily if his party received less than 50 percent of the vote.

The opposition then urged voters who went to the polls to tick the abstention box on their ballots, basically, none of the above, in an attempt to deny Thaksin the mandate he was looking for. It's now clear, Renee, that the number of abstentions was much higher than Thaksin and his party predicted, especially in the capital of Bangkok. He's still expected to reach the 50 percent goal for himself. He did extremely well in rural Thailand, where he is very popular. But I think he and his party are clearly rattled by the number of no-votes.

MONTAGNE: Explain this story to us, though, for those who might not have been following it. Remind us why and how the prime minister came to call the election when he was just last year reelected with an overwhelming mandate?

SULLIVAN: Well, the opposition in some civil society groups have been very unhappy with him for a while--for years, in fact, claiming that he tramples civil liberties, and he puts his family and his friends interests ahead of the country's, and that he's used his overwhelming majority in parliament to weaken Thailand's democratic institutions. But the straw that broke the camel's back was the sale of the family telecommunications firm two months ago for just under $2 billion. The Thaksin family paid no taxes on that sale, and Thaksin insists it was completely legitimate. But the opposition protests started soon after, and they gained steam over the course of the past several weeks, and they haven't stopped.

MONTAGNE: So what's next?

SULLIVAN: Impossible to predict. I mean, it's clear that the election did nothing to resolve the political deadlock here. And, in fact, it may have only muddied the waters even more, because it's not clear that Thaksin's party won enough seats in some of the uncontested areas to be able to claim victory. They have to get at least 20 percent of the vote in each constituency to be declared the winner. And in some opposition strongholds, that may not have happened. There may have been too many no-votes.

So it's pretty clear the new government cannot be formed until all of those seats are filled. That means new elections in those seats, and this could drag on for a while. And, in the mean time, the opposition, People's Alliance for Democracy, is now planning to go back on the streets, and has scheduled two major rallies for later this week to demand that Thaksin step down.

MONTAGNE: Is it possible that the prime minister may yet step down even after this election?

SULLIVAN: A few weeks ago, I would have said no. Now, I'm not so sure, simply because this political impasse shows no sign of ending, and at some point it's going to start affecting the markets and investors, and maybe tourists are going to start to think twice about coming here. And there are some signs that Thaksin himself maybe starting to recognize this, hence, from some in his Party that now with the election out of the way, he might step aside for the good of the country and let someone else from his party lead. Whether this will be enough from the opposition, or whether they would simply see this person as Thaksin's puppet isn't clear, but we're not there yet.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michael Sullivan, speaking from Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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