The worst job in world politics?
On first reading, it sounded like a gutsy decision. After months of political turmoil, Thailand‘s embattled prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has decided to proceed with a disputed national election this Sunday.
There were plenty of reasons to postpone it. Take for example, the fact that the nation has been rocked by three months of anti-government protests by largely middle and upper class protestors in in Bangkok. They accuse Yingluck’s administration of corruption and abuse of power with demonstrators trying to shut the capital down by blocking roads, major intersections and government ministries.
Then, there was the determined opposition from Thailand’s electoral commission. The head of the organisation said the atmosphere was so highly charged that it was not safe for election officials to conduct the poll.
“We believe chaos will ensue. Our recommendation is to hold elections in three or four months’ time,” said Somchai Srisutthiyakorn.
We got a pre-election taster a few days ago, when people registered for early voting tried to cast their ballots. Anti-government demonstrators swarmed dozens of polling stations in Bangkok, obstructing and intimidating voters and chaining up the gates. Hundreds of thousands of people were denied a chance to participate, breaking a pledge made by protest movement leader Suthep Thaugsuban not to hinder the election.
Despite escalation of tensions, the prime minister has decided to continue, perhaps reassured by the knowledge that she is the favourite to win. Ms Yingluck and her Pheu Thai party are regarded as the voice of the populous rural poor, while the protestors in Bangkok represent the urban minority.
If that sounds like the end of the matter, well, think again. Her probable victory raises a series of troubling questions about government – and the nation she will lead if re-elected.
One of these issues is the strong possibility that Yingluck’s administration will not be able to pass laws – or even a budget. The protestors have prevented so many election candidates from registering for the election that the new parliament will lack a quorum – and without the required number of MP’s the new government cannot function.
Then, she has a civil insurgency in the capital to deal with, led by career politicians who refuse to negotiate. Nor can she rely on the support of Thailand’s all-powerful military to help her out. When asked on the weekend whether she thought the generals backed her, Ms Yingluck hummed and ha-ed and said: “You’ll have to ask the army.”
It does not stop there; the country’s rice farmers – once considered among the government’s staunchest supporters – have erected road blocks nationwide after the failure of a government subsidy scheme to pay them for their crops. In our special report on Channel 4 News, you can see how some deeply indebted farmers have taken their own lives with their relatives blaming the government.
Chalerm Jan Daeng, a 59-year old farmer, died after the government’s rice scheme failed to pay him for three successive harvests.
It makes you wonder then, why Yingluck Shinawatra wants the top job in Thai politics. It is a question I put to one of her oldest friends, Mahawan Kwang, a radio talk show host in the northern city of Chang Mai. His answer was somewhat surprising.
“She never wanted to be prime minister,” he said. “I used to tell her that she should follow (her brother) Thaksin into politics but she told me she wasn’t interested. ‘Talk to my sister,’ she used to say.”
Such comments provide ammunition to Ms Yingluck’s opponents, who assert that the prime minister is little more than a puppet – a woman who does the bidding of her billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra. A former Thai prime minister, Mr Thaksin fled the country for Dubai after a conviction for abuse of power in 2008.
There is an alternative view however, advanced by supporters and friends like Mr Kawang, who argue the current prime minister is a whole lot tougher than people think.
“She is an intelligent woman who happens to be very strong,” said Mr Kawang. “You can see what it is like in Thailand. No one would want to lead this country right now.”
Indeed, the top job in Thailand appears to be of the most challenging positions in world politics and Ms Yingluck seems on course to win it – the likely leader of a divided and unhappy nation. So it seems victory on Sunday may not feel like victory for long.
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