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Thai anti-government protesters fill a street during a rally in Bangkok, Thailand Friday, Dec. 20, 2013. (Apichart Weerawong/AP)
Thai anti-government protesters fill a street during a rally in Bangkok, Thailand Friday, Dec. 20, 2013. (Apichart Weerawong/AP)

Thai election achieves little apart from prolonging civil unrest Add to ...

In nine Thailand provinces, no one voted at all. In Bangkok, local authorities estimated turnout of barely 25 per cent. Nearly 13-million voters — out of 44-million eligible — couldn’t access polls.

When Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament in December to call an election that took place Sunday, it was in hopes of finding a way past the anti-government protests that have again thrown the country into political turmoil. But the election, with no clear outcome, accomplished little save to prolong the unrest that has punished the country economically and already led to 10 deaths. And what comes now is not resolution, but the continuation of a high-stakes strategy battle that will see both sides seek to force capitulation on the other side through skirmishes in the courts and on the streets.

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It could take months more.

“Neither party is desperate enough to come to the negotiating table, so we’re not through the worst of it yet,” warned Aim Sinpeng, a former economic policy adviser to the Thai government who today serves as a University of British Columbia scholar.

With so many shut out of polls, Thai election officials are now planning new polls in coming weeks to ensure everyone eligible has a chance to vote. Until that happens, they will make no official results public, leaving a gaping information vacuum that allowed both sides to immediately claim success. On Monday, government opponents led by Suthep Thaugsuban staged a victory march through Bangkok, after what Mr. Suthep called the lowest local voter turnout “in Thai history,” local reports said. It was evidence, he suggested, that Thais want the current government out. Meanwhile, Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer who represents the pro-government Red Shirt movement, called the election a “massive victory” for Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party, who faced long odds in being able to stage a vote.

There was little middle ground.

“You can’t interpret the numbers fully one way or the other. It is, as usual in Thailand, inconclusive,” said David Streckfuss, an independent academic and author in Thailand.

Even if the numbers one day become clearer, the election may prove meaningless in the selection of a new government. Ms. Sinpeng, in Bangkok for the vote, said there is a “high possibility” it will be annulled, the victim of the broad spate of problems caused by protesters who didn’t want it in the first place. (On Monday, protest spokesman Akanat Promphan said: “It’s clear that this election must be nullified.”)

The election also appears unlikely to prove meaningful in resolving a governance crisis that has, in various forms, gripped Thailand for decades. “Political paralysis continues in Thailand,” said Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch. And with government opponents against using elections to determine the way forward, “there seems to be no solution left for the country,” he said.

The courts form the most immediate key battleground, where opponents and their supporters are staging a series of challenges to Ms. Yingluck. The country’s National Anti-Corruption Commission is weighing an impeachment case against Ms. Yingluck in relation to a scheme that saw the government guarantee rice prices for farmers well above market rates. That scheme has suffered numerous problems, not least vast storehouses filled with unsold rotting rice, gaping government losses and unpaid farmers.

Mr. Suthep has also threatened to file suit against the government for wasting the $130-million it took to hold an election that seems unlikely to deliver a new parliament. That’s on top of the other legal challenges Ms. Yingluck already faces. Local media have counted eight in total, but “I’d be surprised if it was that few,” said Mr. Amsterdam, who also represents Ms. Yingluck’s older brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire former prime minister who lives in self-imposed exile but continues to hold outsized influence on Thai politics. The legal threats are real. “There’s a possibility the Pheu Thai party will be disbanded,” Mr. Amsterdam said.

As the legal challenges hang over her, Ms. Yingluck’s ability to act as a caretaker prime minister has been substantially diminished, to the point where she has been unable to authorize rice payments critical to the farmers in her rural support base. For protesters, meanwhile, the election changed little, Mr. Streckfuss said. Their options include trying “to provoke a military coup,” he said. “It’s still the same game.”

Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, an academic and former politician, sees two likely outcomes. In the first, Ms. Yingluck spends the next three to six months shepherding vote after vote, until enough legislators are elected to form a new parliament. Her success will depend on her ability to stay in office that long. In the second, Mr. Suthep prevails because the government is unseated by a broader popular uprising (from angry farmers, for example), or by legal authorities, or by the military. His success lies in his ability to continue drawing protesters to the streets – a not inconsequential task, given the ongoing cost of doing so. “But he has shown an ability to last,” Mr. Kriengsak said (although local reports suggest protester numbers were much diminished Monday). By contrast, by managing to push through a largely peaceful election, “the government has won the first round of this,” he said. “But there are many more rounds.”

The fear among many is that if Ms. Yingluck’s government is defeated outside an election – whether through courts or the military – violence will result. The most ardent government supporters in the country’s north have openly spoken about civil war and secession.

And there’s an argument that Thai voters, even if they didn’t elect a government, made a pointed case for democracy. Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-educated lawyer, highlighted estimates of 50 per cent national voter turnout. That’s well below the 75 per cent achieved in the past two elections, but it’s still strong relative to the obstacles voters faced, he said. “It shows that the Thai people want to come out despite the fears, to show that they demand an election, and not what the protest leaders are proposing,” he said.

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