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Thais Back Ousted Prime Minister's Party in Landslide

Sunday, 03 July 2011 08:05 By Seth Mydans and Thomas Fuller, The New York Times News Service | Report
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Bangkok - The party of the fugitive former Prime  Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won an overwhelming victory in a parliamentary  election on Sunday that could turn Thai  politics on its head and roll back the results of a coup that ousted Mr. Thaksin  five years ago.

In a contest that was seen as a referendum on Thailand’s recent turmoil, the Pheu Thai party, headed by Mr. Thaksin’s youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, 44, appeared headed for an absolute majority of the 500-seat Parliament. With nearly all the votes counted, her party won a projected 261 seats.

With the governing Democrat party winning just 162 seats, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva conceded defeat.  

  Ms. Yingluck, a businesswoman  with no political experience, was selected to head the party by her brother,  who called her his “clone.” She proved  to be a brilliant campaigner.

  The vote is a vindication for Mr.  Thaksin, a populist champion of Thailand’s long marginalized rural poor who was elected prime minister twice, in 2001 and 2005, and removed  in a coup in September 2006.

  “I believe all sides have to respect the  decision of the people,” he said Sunday, speaking to a Thai television  station from Dubai, where he lives evading a conviction for abuse of power. “If  any country doesn’t respect the decisions of its people, there’s no way it is  going to find peace.” The vote had broader resonance as  well, part of a rebalancing of Thailand’s  hierarchical society that so far has  played out in the streets, challenging  the elite establishment and giving more  voice to the poor.

  “This is a slap in the face to the establishment for what they’ve done since  the military coup in 2006,” said Thitinan  Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute  of Security and International Studies at  Chulalongkorn University. “This is a  new Thailand that they must learn to  live with.”

  He added: “This whole election is all  about the awakened voices. These people discovered that they  can actually have access and be  connected to the system.”

  The Pheu Thai party is supported by  many of the “red shirt” protesters, representing the rural and urban poor, who  are committed to Mr. Thaksin and  staged a two-month rally that paralyzed  parts of Bangkok a year ago.

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The Democrat party, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is the party of the establishment, including royalists, old-money elite and high-ranking members of the military, and is at the top of a traditional hierarchical social and political system in Thailand. A military assault crushed the red-shirt protests in confrontations that killed about 90 people in April and May of last year.

  A major challenge for Pheu Thai is to  reach an accommodation with the politically powerful military, which ousted  Mr. Thaksin, supported the Democrats  and battled with the red shirts. In the  near term, its reaction to the election  could shape the outcome and rumors of a  possible coup circulated during the  campaign.

  Sondhi Boonyarataglin, the general  who led the 2006 coup, created his  own political party and won two seats,  including one for himself.

Ms. Yingluck said Sunday she was in discussions about forming a coalition with a small regional party, Chart Thai Pattana. That alliance would add 55 seats to a Pheu Thai government. She also left the door open for a wider coalition.

When the leaders of the 2006 coup returned  power to the electorate in 2007, a party supported by Mr. Thaksin won an overwhelming victory, and the vote Sunday shows  that his political power continues.

  Mr. Thaksin won the loyalty of the  poor as the first prime minister to address their needs, wooing them with  populist programs including almost-free health care, debt moratoriums, support for farmers and cash handouts to  villages.

Members of the Pheu Thai party initially said they would back a political  amnesty, which would open the door for  Mr. Thaksin’s eventual return and create a potential flash point with the military and others who oppose him. But the  party later issued a statement saying  that it did not support amnesty, a politically sensitive notion.

  “In fact, yes, I really want to be home  — as of yesterday,” Mr. Thaksin said in the television interview on Sunday. “But everything has to  comply with proper conditions. I don’t  want to be a problem. But if I go back, I  have to be part of the solution, part of  the answer.”

  In the campaign, both parties focused  on Mr. Thaksin, the country’s most  dominating and divisive personality,  who has been the de facto leader of Pheu  Thai from his refuge in Dubai.

  A Pheu Thai slogan was “Thaksin  thinks and Pheu Thai does.”

 Mr. Abhisit tried to  demonize Mr. Thaksin, declaring in a final political rally that the election would  be “the best opportunity to remove the  poison of Thaksin from Thailand.”

  But the nation’s problems run deeper  and analysts say that it will take many  years for the nation’s conflicts to be resolved.

  “We must take the long view,” said Mr.  Thitinan, the Chulalongkorn international studies program director. “This is a not a two-year  or three-year exercise. We are talking  about two or three decades of political  maturation to come. It will be many  years before we can reconcile the old order and the new order.”

In the northern city of Chiang Mai, Mr. Thaksin’s home, voters who cast ballots at a polling station in a Buddhist temple, expressed a mixture of hope and cynicism about the election.

“There’s been a huge amount of conflict in Thailand when you compare it with foreign countries,” said Kwanrudee Saengnon, 26. “It’s been a so-called democracy, not a real democracy. This time I’d like the majority to decide the winner. I really want democracy to decide the outcome.”

Watchara Sroysangwal, a 30-year-old communications company employee, said he voted for a small political party. “I have no hope for Thailand’s future,” he said. “They can put new faces on the stage but it’s going to be the same groups of people ruling the country anyway.”

 Seth Mydans reported from Bangkok, Thailand and Thomas Fuller from Chiang  Mai, Thailand. Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting from Chiang Mai.

Seth Mydans

Seth Mydans covers Southeast Asia for The New York Times.

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