BANGKOK – When Yingluck Shinawatra inherited her older brother’s job as prime minister of Thailand just over two years ago, many thought she was just his puppet.
Indeed, few thought she would be up to the job of governing Thailand’s notoriously divided country with its recurring, bloody bouts of mass unrest.
But this week, without the presence of her exiled elder brother, Thaksin, ousted in the 2006 military coup, she faced down Thailand’s electoral commission, which wanted to postpone Sunday’s general election — a move that could have made Thailand’s fragile democracy look even more ungovernable and open to another military takeover.
Yingluck insisted that the Feb. 2 election must go ahead, despite threats of blockades and the escalating violence that has dogged the country these past months.
Added to that, the government has chosen Feb. 3, the day after the election, to launch its long-awaited crackdown on the protest movement and reclaim government buildings that have been taken over or besieged by protesters
Before that happens, the two sides are meeting on Friday to try to negotiate a peaceful end to the stalemate. But it is hard to see what compromise might emerge that would bridge such a large chasm.
Thais were given a taste of the electoral confrontation when the advance election was held this past weekend. Protesters besieged polling stations and physically prevented people from voting.
In the rainbow that makes up Thai politics, the core of the protest movement are the “yellow shirts,” who adopt the colour of the Thai Royal Family as their banner
They don’t want to see any election until Yingluck is gone and the electoral system has been reformed (although the details of how that will be done are vague).
Opposing them are the pro-government “red shirts,” who showed their colours during the advance election by beating up several protesters who had forced the closure of a polling station in the south of Bangkok.
Many Thais suspect red-shirt involvement in the shooting death of a prominent protest leader that day as well.
Unhindered by either the police or the army, the blockades resulted in the forced closure of 111 out of 548 polling stations across Thailand, mostly in Bangkok and the south, the yellow-shirt stronghold.
If the same thing happens again Sunday, the general election could turn into a shambles.
Not only will protesters disenfranchise a large proportion of the voting population, there may not even be enough elected members to make up a quorum in parliament — which would present a whole new set of problems.
Army divided too?
To rescue the upcoming election, 200,000 police will be deployed to guard polling stations across Thailand.
It is a risky move on the part of Yingluck, because it could result in the kind of violent clashes the government has tried hard to avoid.
The army will also be deployed to protect the polling stations, including a psychological unit that will attempt to cool any confrontations.
So far the army has stayed out of the political crisis, even as rallies across Bangkok continue to paralyze the capital.
Army chief, general Prayuth Chan-ocha, said last week that the military will only take action if the political situation turns violent.
In the past, the army has not been shy to resolve political crises by launching coups, and has always come down on the side of the yellow shirts.
Army officers are sometimes referred to as “pineapples” — green on the outside but yellow on the inside (although by the same token many enlisted soldiers are nicknamed “watermelons” — green on the outside but red on the inside).
But this time the army is acting less partisan. Gen. Prayuth added his own colour to the mix by insisting that the military was neither red nor yellow but “grey.”
As well, it’s probably fair to say that the level of violence that would force a military intervention has not been seen.
Despite provocations — two grenade attacks and several shootings — the thousands of protesters in downtown Bangkok have remained largely peaceful.
Meanwhile, the red shirts in their stronghold to the north and east of Thailand have refrained from marching on the capital or holding rallies there, as they did in the past with sometimes fatal results.
As long as the election is not postponed, they see no reason to provoke a fight as their side is expected to do well.
Colour of neutrality
As for the vast majority of Thais, they are fast adopting the colour of a movement opposed to both extremes.
Supporters of the “Respect My Vote” movement have been holding their own rallies in Bangkok and wearing white, the colour of neutrality.
They insist they are neither pro- nor anti-government, they simply want the right to express their opinions at the ballot box.
They may well be the majority on Sunday, but they seem largely powerless to stop the better organized and more vocal extremes on the colour chart.
Ironically, some analysts think the opposition Democrat Party would have had a good chance at the polls if it had decided to run on Sunday, instead of throwing its lot in with the anti-Yingluck protesters and boycotting the election.
Yingluck’s re-election, which looked a certainty in December when she dissolved parliament, is now only a certainty because of the lack of opposition.
In early December she enjoyed unfaltering support from her stronghold in the north and east, where a generous government rice-buying scheme was making farmers rich.
But now these same farmers are themselves protesting and blockading roads, because although the government took their rice in October, it hasn’t yet paid them for it.
“I have plunged into debt because of the policy of this government,” a farmer called Somkuan Songjaeng told a Thai newspaper. “I won’t vote for [Yingluck’s] Pheu Thai Party in the upcoming election.”
This week, as a sign of the growing despair, two indebted farmers committed suicide.