Is the Party Just Getting Started for Thailand's Yellow Shirt Protesters?

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Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Protestors from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) cheer near the end of their siege at Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok, Thailand, on Dec. 2, 2008

Having helped to bring down two Thai governments through street protests, invading airports and seizing the offices of the prime minister, members of a controversial Thai protest movement want to lay claim to those same offices again — through the ballot box.

Members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) voted this week to form a political party and contest Thailand's next general election. The head of the still-unnamed party is expected to be movement leader Sondhi Limthongkul, 61, a formerly bankrupt media magnate who has accrued various enemies in a long public career. Sondhi was wounded in an assassination attempt in April that he blamed on corrupt politicians and military men. Millions of viewers regularly watch his satellite television channel ASTV, which openly advocates for the PAD and could provide the new party with a potentially huge voter base. "We asked our people and the masses want us to do this," said PAD spokesman Panthep Pourpongpan. (Watch TIME's video "Buddhist Monks in War and Protest.")

The PAD, known for the yellow shirts they wear in their protests, is a loose alliance of groups opposed to the return of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that includes businesspeople, Bangkok's urban middle class and royalists. Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in September 2006 after months of streets protests by the PAD, and subsequently convicted of conflict of interest. He fled the country rather than serve a two-year prison sentence. A proxy party supported by Thaksin that came to power in 2008 was dissolved by the Constitutional Court for electoral fraud after months of PAD protests that included occupying Bangkok's international airport and the prime minister's offices. (Read a TIME Q&A with Thaksin Shinawatra.)

Entering the electoral fray will be an ironic development for PAD, as its platform dubbed "New Politics" once called for denying the nation's rural majority the right to vote on the basis that they are uneducated and sell their votes to corrupt politicians. The movement's positions range from reasonable — such as reforming corruption in politics and pushing for an unbiased state-run media — to questionable at best, with one PAD leader recently praising North Korea's land reform program, saying that although North Koreans were starving, they had pride of small land ownership.

Nonetheless, a PAD party could pose a major challenge to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party, whose ability to hold together his fractious governing coalition appears increasingly shaky amid civil unrest, political conflicts and an economy that contracted by 7.1% in the first quarter of this year. As Abhisit's coalition is still intact, no election date has been set. "We have been asking for political reform, but for five months this government has not responded to us," Panthep said. "We will ally ourselves with any party that wants transparency, the rule of law and an end to corruption." (See pictures of the 2008 protests in Bangkok.)

Both PAD and Thaksin's supporters, known as the 'red shirts,' have been at the center of Thailand's civil unrest for years, flouting the law with apparently little consequences. The PAD seized Bangkok's international airport for eight days late last year, while the red shirts stormed a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian nations in Pattaya in April forcing its cancellation, rioted in Bangkok and twice violently attacked Abhisit's car.

Some analysts caution that forming an official party could ultimately undermine the PAD's goal of preventing the return of Thaksin or his allies. The Democrats and the PAD appeal to similar constituencies, and the fear is they may split the anti-Thaksin vote, paving the way for his proxy party to return to power. "We may be competing for some of the same voters as the Democrats,'' Panthep conceded.

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