Economy takes centre stage in Thai election

National reconciliation might not be top priority for voters in Thailand's first elections since deadly 2010 protests.

    Inflation hit a 32-month high in May at 4.2 per cent, a disconcerting figure for the import-reliant Thais [Reuters]

    Thailand is at a critical juncture between national reconciliation and further political destabilisation, as Thais go to polls on July 3 in the country's first general election since last year's violent protests.

    Abhisit Vejjajiva, the current prime minister and member of the ruling Democrat Party, will square off with Yingluck Shinawatra, businesswoman-turned-Pheu Thai party leader, who is ahead in pre-election polls.

    Yingluck is seen as a power proxy for her older brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister who exercises much influence on Thai politics from Dubai, where he is self-exiled.

    Thaksin was deposed in 2006 in a military coup for allegedly abusing his power for personal gain. He also faces an arrest warrant for charges related to last year's protests.

    Tensions between the Democrats and the Pheu Thai party, which reflect deep divisions within Thai society, peaked last year, with protests against Abhisit's administration.

    The demonstrations led to a military crackdown, in which more than 90 people were killed and hundreds injured.

    The turmoil peaked last year when pro-Thaksin supporters took to the streets of Bangkok, the capital, and engaged in deadly protests that left at least 91 people dead.

    The Thai government has subsequently pledged to work toward a process of national reconciliation to heal the country's class and political divisions, but concerns over the violence's possible repeat, looms.

    Earlier this week, Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand's army chief, dismissed what he called "rumours" that the military would stage a coup in the event of a Pheu Thai win - a conscious effort to calm fears over the possibility of unrest.

    "We soldiers are staying where we are supposed to be," Prayuth said on Thursday.

    "Any government coming up has the right to take office... I have no problem accepting whatever comes."

    Inflation fears

    Analysts say while national reconciliation is one of the key election agendas, the people's concerns over the economy is another, if not the most important.

    Panitan Wattanayagorn, the exiting deputy secretary general to the prime minister, says macro indicators show the Thai economy as doing well, but from a micro perspective, citizens are unhappy.

    Wattanayagorn said certain numbers [for Thailand] are as they good as they can be: Thailand ranks 13th in the world for cash reserves and foreign visitors travelling to Thailand are at a record high: 80 million this past year.

    "But on the other hand you see surges where compared to neighbouring countries, you saw food and commodity prices soaring," he told Al Jazeera.

    Inflation reached 32-month high in 4.2 percent in May, and in June headline inflation hit 4.1 per cent, a data point that has been kept artificially low by a series of price caps on key commodities like palm oil, sugar and eggs, and a tax cut which has kept diesel substantially below its fair market price.

    The Bank of Thailand has raised interest rates at seven of its last eight meetings. But because most of the inflation is imported, the hikes have only had a limited impact on inflation.

    Thailand is heavily reliant on export markets in Europe, Japan and the United States, and thus particularly vulnerable to rising oil prices.

    Policy pledges

    Both of the leading parties have made extravagant and similar promises of increased minimum wages, expensive infrastructure projects and better social security, not to mention free tablet PCs.

    Thinitan Pongsudhirak, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn, sees the main policy pledges being focused on the economy as a populist move - not a novel phenomenon in Thai political history, but a possible sign of maturity in the country's leadership and democracy.

    "Sufficiency economy was also the main policy thrust of the government [sic] during the coup period in 2006-07 and is still mentioned frequently on radio and television advertisements," Pongsudhirak wrote in an analysis.

    "This is another contrast that may be pointing to a newly emerging but still inchoate political landscape, where parties are forced to cater to voters' demands and expectations in ways we have not seen in decades past.

    "If it continues, whereby elections are held regularly with results that count and voters become paramount with elected representatives increasingly answerable to them, this trend of campaigning competitively for what citizens and voters want, can go a long way in bolstering Thailand's democratic institutions in the very long run."

    Wattanayagorn, the former adviser to the Abhisit administration, says Thai voters are "very realistic ... [and] by going to the polls on Sunday, they are accepting that Thailand is on the road to economy recovery and to a stage where political issues will be mostly resolved".

    But at the same time, they do not see the elections as "the panacea to all of Thailand's problems for the coming five to six years", he said.

    "Many outside observers looking in from far away seem to reinforce this notion of possible post-election unrest, but inside Thailand, on the ground, people are very much fed up with violence and instability."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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