For the fourth time in a decade, Thailand has voted for a party associated with the exiled populist Thaksin Shinawatra. Once more the question is whether the country's military and political establishment will accept the results.
The landslide win Sunday by the opposition Pheu Thai party makes Mr. Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, the country's first female prime-minister-elect. It also represents a sharp rejection of the 2006 military coup that overthrew Mr. Thaksin. Fourteen months after the army crushed protests in Bangkok by red-shirted supporters of Mr. Thaksin – a crackdown that left 91 people dead – the Red Shirts are poised to take power.
Thailand has seen 18 successful and attempted military coups since it transitioned from an absolute monarchy in 1932. An effort to avert a 19th coup is already under way, with reports of a backroom deal that will see the army accept Ms. Yingluck's win provided her government doesn't interfere with the military or its budget, which has grown sharply since the coup. The rumoured agreement – which has been denied by all involved – would also see Pheu Thai abandon campaign talk of trying to prosecute those who ordered last spring's bloody crackdown.
Pheu Thai's election win also represents a victory for Thailand's rural poor, who have long felt left behind by the country's rapid and highly centralized modernization. They were the backbone of the protest movement that shut down the centre of Bangkok for two months last year, and they propelled Ms. Yingluck's party to victory on Sunday. With more than 95 per cent of the votes tallied, Pheu Thai had won or was leading in 262 of 500 seats, with the governing Democrat Party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva a distant second with 160 seats.
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Pheu Thai's tally included 150 of the 193 seats available in the predominantly rural north and northeast of the country. The region is Mr. Thaksin's power base, where he is remembered as the first leader who focused on the concerns of the nearly 70 per cent of Thais who don't live in cities, introducing cheap health care and rural development programs during his time in office.
The result holds lessons for Thailand's neighbours, particularly India and China, who have both seen runaway growth in their urban centres in recent years while resentment spreads in the countryside, where people feel left behind.
Mr. Thaksin's supporters have been at this triumphant juncture before, only to be pushed back to the margins each time. The billionaire tycoon – who exiled himself to a villa in Dubai to avoid a conviction on corruption charges stemming from his time in office – saw his allies win the first post-coup election in 2007. Still, judicial rulings have previously ousted two pro-Thaksin prime ministers, clearing the way for Mr. Abhisit's ascension.
Even as the scale of Pheu Thai's victory became clear, there was as much anxiety as optimism at the party's downtown Bangkok headquarters.
"There are so many steps that Pheu Thai has to overcome," said Sean Boonpracong, editor of the rajprasongnews, a website affiliated with the Red Shirt movement. "There's the Electoral Commission, the Constitutional Court, and of course the Thai army, whose intentions are unknown, but which has been making menacing noises. But we can be cautiously optimistic, for a day anyway."
The mood at Pheu Thai headquarters grew tense as official results initially diverged from exit polls that had shown the party headed for a clear victory. But as the party's lead widened in the official numbers, Mr. Abhisit put an end to the drama. "The outcome is clear – Pheu Thai has won the election and the Democrats are defeated," he told supporters in a concession speech on the steps of his Democrat Party headquarters in downtown Bangkok.
Soon afterwards, the streets were filled with red-shirted supporters chanting, "Prime Minister Yingluck!" and setting off fireworks.
While her party ran under the slogan "Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai does," Ms. Yingluck used her first press conference as prime-minister-elect to once more assert that she is more than her brother's proxy. "Thai people selected first myself, second Pheu Thai policy, third my management team. People did not select me only because my last name is Shinawatra," the telegenic 44-year-old said, her thin voice barely audible over the din of clicking cameras.
She promised to focus on economic development and building national unity, making no mention of the most contentious issue she will eventually have to deal with: whether her brother should be given an amnesty and allowed to return home. Several analysts Sunday said that any attempt to amnesty Mr. Thaksin would kick-start a new round of street protests, perhaps led by the so-called Yellow Shirts – upper and middle-class anti-Thaksin activists who see him and Pheu Thai as a threat to the country's monarchy.
Many see Thailand's five-year-old political crisis as a prelude to a bigger struggle for power that will erupt when the 83-year-old King Bhumibol, who has been in hospital since September 2009, eventually dies. The King's oldest son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is not revered as his father is, and Mr. Thaksin's opponents have accused him of seeking to establish a republic with himself as president.
Yellow Shirt protests – including the 2008 seizure of Bangkok's main airport – helped bring down the last pro-Thaksin government, clearing the path for Mr. Abhisit's rise to power. However the People's Alliance for Democracy, as the group is formally known, has since withdrawn its support for the Democrat Party and urged Thais to vote for no candidate in Sunday's elections, ironically helping increase Ms. Yingluck's margin of victory.
From his home in exile, Mr. Thaksin hinted there would be worse turmoil if the election's losers again try to thwart his allies from taking power. "All parties must respect the people's decision, otherwise our country cannot achieve peace," he told Thai television. He said he wants to return to Thailand "as of yesterday," but will not do so under circumstances that would cause fresh divisions.
Outside the Pheu Thai headquarters in Bangkok, Samlan Permpon, a Red Shirt hardliner who was shot in the leg during last year's crackdown, vowed that he and others were willing to defend the election victory against the threat of another coup. "If they do not let Pheu Thai become the government, we are prepared to fight them 24 hours a day. I'm not scared of the soldiers," the 41-year-old garbage collector said as a celebratory crowd of red-clad Pheu Thai supporters danced in the streets around him.
Despite leading her Pheu Thai ("For Thais") party to a convincing majority, Yingluck Shinawatra will still have to tread carefully in months ahead if she wants to avoid a confrontation with Thailand's powerful military and its allies in the monarchy and bureaucracy. Here are the flashpoints:
Amnesty for her brother
Ms. Yingluck's older brother (and political patron) Thaksin Shinawatra remains both the most loved and loathed man in Thailand. He said Sunday that he wants to go home, and Pheu Thai has mused about an amnesty for politicians on both sides of the country's political chasm. But for Mr. Thaksin's political opponents, the idea of his return without serving his two-year sentence from a 2008 corruption conviction is a red line. "If we allow people who have been found formally guilty not to be punished after they've caused such trouble for the past two years, this is not right," Boonyod Sooktinthai, deputy spokesman for the defeated Democrat Party, said in an interview.
Accountability for 2010 crackdown
Pheu Thai promised its supporters that it will back a Truth and Reconciliation Commission established to investigate the bloody end to the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok last spring. The military crackdown left 91 people, almost all of them Red Shirt supporters, dead and hundreds more injured. But while some Pheu Thai figures have called for outgoing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and top army commanders to be put on trial, such a move would deepen divisions and put the army into a corner.
Addressing the 2007 constitution drafted under the military government that overthrew Mr. Thaksin is another key issue for many who voted for Ms. Yingluck. The document effectively strengthened the country's unelected elites, and gave them more levers to use against a government they don't like. But reopening the constitution is likely to bring Pheu Thai into a showdown with Thailand's powerful generals. Historically, such confrontations haven't gone well for the civilian governments.