Bangkok, Thailand - Voters here went to the polls on Sunday in a snap election - the results of which are unlikely to solve the country's political deadlock, say analysts. For the past three months, a tense standoff between the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and protesters led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, has exposed the deep divisions within Thai society.
Protesters have been occupying several key intersections in the Thai capital since January in an all-out effort to shut down Bangkok and topple the government. The city has not quite come to a standstill, but the government has declared a state of emergency - which has gone largely unenforced - and there have been occasional eruptions of violence which have left 10 people dead since November. Amid this tension, there was virtually no campaigning by most parties ahead of the elections.
The standoff is the latest episode in a political crisis which has divided the country since 2006, when Yingluck's brother, the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted in a military coup. With his populist policies aimed at scoring votes in the impoverished and populous regions of the north and northeast, Thaksin and his allies have won every election held in Thailand since 2001, attracting the enmity of the old royalist elites in the capital who had held power in the country before then.
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Thaksin left the country, being sentenced in absentia to a two-year jail term for corruption charges, and has remained a deeply polarising figure in Thai politics. The latest wave of protests was triggered by a controversial amnesty bill submitted to the parliament by the governing party, the Puea Thai, which could have paved the way for his return to Thailand.
Demands without dialogue
The protesters, mainly from the middle classes of Bangkok and from the strongholds of the opposition Democrat Party in the south, demand nothing less than the uprooting of what they call "the Thaksin regime". They are pushing the government to step down unconditionally and want the country to be ruled by a royally appointed council for one year - during which vaguely stated reforms would be introduced - before new elections would be held.
"We offered dialogue even before the dissolution of the house in December, but the other side didn't accept it and they continued talking about reform. But those reforms they were talking about cannot be accomplished without the House of Representatives. Because these reforms need an amendment of a present act, a new act, or the amendment of the constitution, something that cannot be done without the House of Representatives," Phongthep Thepkanjana, deputy prime minister told Al Jazeera two days before the election.
In this context, said analysts, with the governing party likely to win any election, it was the legitimacy of Yingluck's government and the electoral process itself that was at stake on Sunday.
"We think that election is a problem now, the Puea Thai Party committed electoral fraud twice, the party was dissolved twice, they have committed vote-buying, a lot of things," claimed Akanat Promphan, spokesman of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and stepson of Thaugsuban. "Elections now would only return to the same old vicious circle, it would not solve any problem. With the elections on February 2, we will return to the same problems and divisions," he told Al Jazeera before polls opened.
The accusations of vote-buying are common among the opposition, but have been rebuffed by academics. Economist Pasuk Pongpaichit and historian Chris Baker wrote an article in The Bangkok Post in December, in which they said that vote-buying had not disappeared, but was no longer entirely relevant: "At election time, some candidates still hand out money for fear of being judged 'small-hearted' or 'ungenerous' if they don't. But the point is, this money is no longer determining the election result."
There were worries that the situation might spiral out of control during the election, after shooting the previous day between the rival groups left seven people injured in Bangkok. Likit Upatampanon, an official in charge of a polling station in the Bang Sue district of north Bangkok, told Jazeera that he would have preferred the elections were postponed, worrying the political climate was too tense.
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Upatampanon has worked in polling stations for 35 years, and his fears did not stop him from "performing [his] duty". But other election officials failed to turn up. In some areas of Bangkok, and in several provinces in the south, protesters blockaded polling stations. In much of the north and the northeast of the country, the election went on unhindered.
Nevertheless, protester spokesman Akanat denied on Sunday that the blocking of some polling stations was part of any official PDRC policy. "We have made clear many times that our supporters should choose to demonstrate peacefully without obstructing other people’s rights," he said. "Having said that, there are people who are much angered with the present government, people who feel that their rights have been violated by this government."
Eventually, violence on polling day was confined to minor scuffles. According to the Election Commission, 89 percent of the 93,952 polling stations across the country opened, and 20.4 million people cast their vote - just under 46 percent of the 44.6 million eligible voters.
It was not possible to vote in nine provinces, and the Election Commission had yet to decide when elections will be held there. In the present circumstances, parliament cannot be convened and Yingluck Shinawatra has to continue as head of a caretaker government.
Military or judicial coup?
Protesters continue occupying the streets, and the conflict is far from resolved. There are fears of a coup d’état by a military prone to interventions - 18 since 1932 - if the standoff continues and there is further violence.
But so far the military seems reluctant to act. "The army certainly supports implicitly the protesters, because the protesters are masterminded by the royalist conservatives, the same force that truly controls the military. But they are reluctant to intervene by force, to stage a coup, because their credibility and their reputation, in the view of the Thai general public, were severely damaged in the 2006 coup," Thongchai Winichakul, a leading Thai historian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told Al Jazeera.
The judiciary in Thailand is another mechanism of the royalist conservatives.
"The royalist conservatives are trying a non-military coup, namely through judiciary and other legal bodies. If these options work, the military coup is not needed."
With weeks - or months - to go before the election results will be announced, and the pressure continuing in the streets, it is likely that the political standoff will end up at the courts. The Election Commission said on Monday that it expected legal complaints would try to invalidate the election and challenge the legitimacy of the government.
And even some members of the government do not seem to trust the impartiality of the judiciary. "I have to admit that one of the factors why this country is divided is because we do not have a referee to perform its duty neutrally... So we can see double standards, or no standards, in some cases, and especially in some courts," Deputy Prime Minister Phongthep Thepkanjana told Al Jazeera.
Winichakul put it more bluntly: "The judiciary in Thailand is another mechanism of the royalist conservatives."
If the government is toppled, be it by a military or a judicial coup, it's unlikely that its supporters, known as "red shirts", will stand idly as they mostly have during recent months.
"We are the majority of the people and we should be the winner," Thida Thavornset, the chairwoman of the red shirts' United Front for Democracy and against Dictatorship, told Al Jazeera on Saturday. "We will try to fight, but we will do it through peaceful means, like flash mobs or symbolic actions."
Source: Al Jazeera