Bangkok Election Shows Government Support Still Strong

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Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

A supporter wears a mask of Korkaew Pikulthong during rally in Bangkok on July 23, 2010

In the first test of voter sentiment after May's bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters, Thailand's ruling Democrat Party won a by-election in Bangkok on Sunday. Less than an hour after poll results were announced, a bomb exploded at a bus stop in the city center, killing one and injuring ten people as political violence and a State of Emergency, originally invoked during the May disturbances, continued in force. On Monday, an army general said he believed the bomb was unrelated to the election.

The polling district, Bangkok's Constituency 6, is located where the countryside gives way to the capital's urban sprawl and where many inhabitants are migrants from regions where anti-government sentiment is strong. In a controversial strategy, the opposition Puea Thai Party chose to field as its candidate Korkaew Pikulthong, one of several dozen leaders of the anti-government Red Shirt movement who have been imprisoned under the State of Emergency. Korkaew's appeals to Thai courts to release him so that he could campaign were denied.

Although only about 190,000 voters cast their ballots in a low turnout, the contest was still seen as a litmus test on public opinion and the future electoral prospects of the government and its opposition. The current coalition government can hold office until the end of 2011, but Prime Minister Abhsiit Vejjajiva has said national elections could be held earlier than that if calm and stability returns. The conflicts between supporters of the government and its opponents represent the deepest and bitterest political divisions Thailand has seen since the 1970s.

The Red Shirts, who are closely associated with the Puea Thai Party, are an amalgalm of groups who oppose the ruling Democrats. Many are from the lower classes and the poorer north and northeastern regions, although both pro- and anti-government supporters come from all classes and regions. Others are opposed to military and bureaucratic interference in politics. Many Red Shirts are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 and living abroad rather than serve a prison sentence on a corruption conviction. The Red Shirts staged a two-month protest in Bangkok, shutting down its business district before the military dispersed the demonstration on May 19. Ninety people were killed during the two months of disturbances, and militant Red Shirts burned down more than 30 buildings in Bangkok as troops moved in. Sunday's bomb blast occurred at the former protest site. Police have yet to name any suspects.

Earlier this month, columnist Chang Noi had written in The Nation newspaper that the poll would be a referendum on the May disturbances. "Some people argue that the violence of May will have turned people away from sympathy with the reds. Others are guessing that the heavy-handedness of the crackdown and the government's subsequent triumphalism will have increased sympathies for the reds. The election will show which of these predictions is right,'' Chang Noi wrote. Furthermore, the columnist contended, a Democrat loss might cause its coalition partners to jump ship before the national election and side with Puea Thai and the Red Shirts.

The decision to field a candidate awaiting trial on terrorism charges in prison may have cost Puea Thai the by-election. But the party spokesmen claimed the State of Emergency cost their candidate crucial votes, as only 49% of eligible voters participated. Some tape recorded campaign speeches by Korkaew never reached voters' ears as the Election Commission was still vetting them to see if their contents violated the Emergency Decree when the poll took place. Several prominent Thais and international organizations have urged the government to lift the decree, but the bomb blast provided ammunition to security officials who want to retain it, though on Monday, Gen. Kanit Sapitak, commander of the First Army region which covers Bangkok, told the Bangkok Post the bomb was the work of groups wanting to cause chaos and was not directly tied to the poll.

Unofficial results showed the Democrat candidate, former Bangkok City Clerk Panich Vikitsreth, winning 52.7% of the vote, while Korkaew captured 40.9%. Panich, largely unknown to voters in the district, campaigned chiefly on local issues, such as improving transport links to the central city, while Korkaew campaigned on national issues revolving around conflicts between the Red Shirts and the Democrats.

On Monday, Red Shirt patron Thaksin told his supporters through Twitter to be patient, endure the current injustice and avoid violence. The former Prime Minster turned 61 on Monday.