Monday, July 4, 2011

Thailand's opposition party sweeps polls

Nirmal Ghosh
The Straits Times
Publication Date : 04-07-2011

Thailand's opposition Puea Thai party swept to victory with an outright majority in Sunday's (July 3) elections, with former businesswoman Yingluck Shinawatra poised to become the country's first woman prime minister.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party conceded defeat at his party's headquarters after election results showed Puea Thai winning around 264 seats in the 500-member Parliament.

The Democrats held on to 160 seats, less than the 165 it had won in 2007.

The party lost some ground in Bangkok, its traditional stronghold, but still managed to win 23 out of 33 seats.

Parliament must convene in four weeks to elect a prime minister.

There remains concerns over how the military would react to the election results, although army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha has publicly pledged to respect the people's vote.

"It is now clear from the election results so far that the Puea Thai party has won the election, and the Democrat Party concedes defeat," Abhisit told a press conference as a sombre mood descended on his party's headquarters.

"I will give the chance to Yingluck, the first woman to form a government," he said. "I want to see unity and reconciliation. The Democrats are ready to be in opposition."

Across town on Petchaburi Road, hundreds of Puea Thai supporters thronged the party's office, dancing and cheering wildly as the results came in.

Yingluck held a brief press conference thronged by journalists and cameramen.

"I don't want to say it is a victory for me and the Puea Thai party, but people are giving me a chance, and I will work to my best ability for the people," said the 44-year-old, who has pledged to talk to all parties in a bid to heal the divided country.

"We are ready to deliver on all of the policies that we have announced. There is a lot of hard work ahead."

She said other smaller parties were likely to join the Puea Thai to expand its presence in Parliament.

Yingluck pledged to continue reconciliation efforts through the work of a commission set up following street clashes last year in Bangkok that left 91 people dead.

She said the Thai people voted not only for her, but also for Puea Thai's policies, and they voted for her not because she is the sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Pongthep Thepkanjana, a former Cabinet minister close to Thaksin, told The Straits Times that voters had trust in the track record of the party, which dates back to the original Thai Rak Thai party banned by a court in 2007.

"Also, over the past two to three years, people have experienced injustice and double standards, and don't want this to continue, so they wanted to change the government," he said.

"And then there is the charisma of Yingluck Shinawatra."

Yingluck, a newcomer to electoral politics, gained more poise and confidence as the election campaign gathered pace.

She stuck to policy speeches, refusing to be drawn into attacking the Democrat Party, even when the ruling party accused her of seeking power just to pave the way for her brother's return.

Thaksin, the only prime minister in the history of Thailand to be popularly elected twice running, was toppled by the military in 2006.

He was sentenced to two years in jail on a corruption charge, and later saw a huge chunk of his wealth seized by the state.

Speaking on Sunday from Dubai, where he lives in self-imposed exile, Thaksin told a Thai TV station: "I have talked to Yingluck, and I have told her that it is a long road ahead for her, and reconciliation is the biggest issue that needs to be sorted out."

On the question of his own return to Thailand - a contentious issue given that he has yet to serve his jail sentence and is detested by royalist elites and the army, he said: "If I return, I want to be part of the solution for reconciliation, and not create more problems."

Celebrations continued late into the night across the Puea Thai's strongholds in the north and north-east.

In north-eastern Khon Kaen province, fish seller Prapai Prongpan said: "People voted not because of anger at what happened last summer in Bangkok, but to end the conflict and for reconciliation."

Academic Federico Ferrara, who wrote the 2010 book Thailand Unhinged on the kingdom's political crisis, said the fact that the Puea Thai party had survived the odds and won shows that "it has established some sort of really meaningful connection with voters".


Total number of seats: 500
Puea Thai: 264
Democrats: 160
Others: 76
Voter turnout: 74%
Source: Election Commission

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