With a big turnout at a rally of his supporters and another landslide by-election win for his party at the weekend, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has proved he is still a force in Thai politics, even in exile.
More than 20,000 “red shirt” demonstrators braved the rain in Bangkok to demand new elections in the biggest pro-Thaksin rally since April, when the army was called in to break up violent street protests.
And a second successive victory for the Thaksin-backed Puea Thai party in a pivotal by-election on Sunday indicates he is still popular among the rural masses despite Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s claim that he is a spent political force.
Analysts say the strengthening of Thaksin’s parliamentary and extra-parliamentary movements could plunge Thailand into deeper political turmoil, stifling economic recovery efforts and heightening the risk of more civil unrest.
“As long as Thaksin is a force, his supporters will use all means to contest this government,” said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.
“The opposition to Thaksin will remain, with the prospect of more confrontation and violence and no chance of compromise or national reconciliation,” he said.
The “red shirts” say Abhisit is an illegitimate stooge who relied on army-orchestrated parliamentary defections to give his Democrats a slender majority after the courts dissolved the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party in December.
After weeks of protests, Thaksin’s supporters caused huge embarrassment for Abhisit on April 11 when they breached military lines to force the cancellation of an Asian summit in Pattaya, when half of the leaders had to be evacuated by helicopter.
Bangkok street clashes two days later plunged Thailand deeper into chaos and pictures aired across the world of burning buses, hijacked petrol tankers and troops firing rifles did nothing to restore investors’ confidence or attract tourists back.
The Oxford-educated Abhisit, whose Democrats head a fragile six-party coalition, has said he will not call an election until the export-driven economy has recovered and a process of constitutional reform is complete.
The Finance Ministry forecast last week that the economy would shrink between 2.5 percent and 3.5 percent this year.
Analysts say Thaksin’s aim is to harass and discredit Abhisit in parliament and on the streets before the public sees any benefit from the government’s 1.43 trillion baht (US$42 billion) economic stimulus packages.
The “red shirts” want an early election because the Puea Thai party stands a good chance of winning a house majority.
If successful, Puea Thai would be expected to pursue legislative changes that would allow Thaksin, sentenced in absentia in October to two years in prison for graft, to return from exile in Dubai and launch a political comeback.
“The longer Abhisit remains in power, the harder it will be for Puea Thai to win votes in the next election,” said Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, a political scientist from the National Institute of Development Administration.
“That means there will be more pressure on Abhisit, making it harder for him to fix the economy. Thaksin will do whatever it takes to accelerate the timing of a new election,” he said.
However, the “red shirts” grouped in the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship have promised not to disrupt this month’s Asian summit in Phuket.