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Opposition heads for a landslide victory in Thai election: polls

Opposition heads for a landslide victory in Thai election: polls
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First Published: Sun, Jul 03 2011. 07 20 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Jul 03 2011. 07 20 PM IST
Bangkok: Thailand’s opposition appeared headed for a landslide election victory on Sunday, led by the sister of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in a triumph for protesters who clashed with the army last year.
Exit polls showed Yingluck Shinawatra’s Puea Thai (For Thais) party winning a clear majority of parliament’s 500 seats, paving the way for the 44-year-old business executive to become Thailand’s first woman prime minister.
“Mr Thaksin called to congratulate me and encourage me,” Yingluck said of her billionaire brother, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in Dubai to avoid jail for graft charges that he says were politically motivated.
“He told me that there is still much hard work ahead of us,” she told reporters.
With nearly 80% of votes counted, Yingluck’s party was projected to win 255 seats with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat Party taking 164, according to the Election Commission.
Exit polls by Bangkok’s Suan Dusit University showed Puea Thai doing even better, winning 313 seats compared to just 152 for the Democrats, dismal enough to threaten Abhisit’s job as party leader.
Yingluck’s supporters were jubilant, erupting in roars and cheers as television broadcast the exit polls.
“Number one Yingluck”, some shouted. “Prime Minister Yingluck” screamed others, as party members slapped each other on the back.
“Yingluck has helped us and now Puea Thai can solve our problems and they’ll solve the country’s problems,” said Saiksa Chankerd, a 40-year-old government worker.
The results appear to be a rebuke of the traditional establishment of generals, old-money families and royal advisers in Bangkok who loathed Thaksin and backed Abhisit, an Oxford-trained economist who struggled to find a common touch.
“People wanted change and they got it,” said Kongkiat Opaswongkarn, chief executive of Asia Plus Securities in Bangkok. “It tells you that a majority of people still want most of the things that the ex-prime minister had done for the country in the past.”
Yingluck was feted like a rock-star by the red shirts who designated entire communities in Thailand’s rugged, vote-rich northeast plateau as “red shirt villages” to help mobilise supporters.
The red shirts accuse the rich, the establishment and top military brass of breaking laws with impunity - grievances that have simmered since the 2006 coup which overthrew her brother - and have clamoured for Thaksin’s return.
Thaksin said he would “wait for the right moment” to come home. “If my return is going to cause problems, then I will not do it yet. I should be a solution, not a problem,” he told reporters in Dubai.
Crony capitalist
Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, scored landslide election wins in 2001 and 2005 and remains idolized by the poor as the first politician to address the needs of millions living beyond Bangkok’s bright lights.
Yingluck electrified his supporters, ran a disciplined campaign and promised Thaksin-style populist policies, including a big rise in the national minimum wage and free tablet PCs for nearly one million school children.
Abhisit warned of instability if Yingluck wins, blaming the red shirts for weeks of political unrest last year in which 91 people, mostly civilians, were killed.
They cast Thaksin as a crony capitalist, fugitive and terrorist who condones mob rule.
But Abhisit’s denial that troops were responsible for a single death or injury last year was mocked even in the Democrat stronghold of Bangkok. A web-savvy generation could, with a few mouse-clicks, watch videos on Youtube showing military snipers firing on civilians, eroding his credibility.
Abhisit’s backers want Thaksin to serve a two-year prison term. They dismiss Yingluck as a simple proxy for her brother.
Throughout the six-week campaign, the two sides presented similar populist campaigns of subsidies for the poor, improved healthcare benefits and infrastructure investment including high-speed rail systems across the country - a style of policymaking known in Thailand as “Thaksinomics”.
The clear majority should make it easier for the opposition to execute campaign promises, bringing some stability to Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, but it could also fan inflation they go ahead with a promise to lift the minimum wage to 300 baht ($9.70) per day - a roughly 40% increase.
The election is Thailand’s 26th since it became a democracy in 1932, ending seven centuries of absolute monarchy. Since then, it has seen 18 military coups or coup attempts.
Recent opinion polls predicted Puea Thai would win about 240 seats, short of a majority. In that scenario, smaller parties would have been crucial, possibly helping the Democrats stay in power if managed to form a coalition government.
But despite the election results, there remained a chance that the outcome could be spoiled by Thailand’s courts, whose rulings have removed two prime ministers, disbanded six parties, jailed three election commissioners and banned more than 250 politicians since the 2006 coup.
Analysts and legal experts say those precedents suggest the courts could ultimately dictate who holds political power in the months after the election, and some fear Yingluck could still be prevented from governing.
“Definitely there will be some resistance,” Thaksin said of Yingluck’s rivals. “But I don’t think it will be that much. Those who benefit from conflict are still around. I want to urge them to sacrifice for country.”
According to some reports, the Puea Thai camp had been in talks with the generals to find some way of working together should it emerge victorious. Puea Thai would be allowed to govern and the military top brass would remain in place, with early reshuffles limited to middle ranks.
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First Published: Sun, Jul 03 2011. 07 20 PM IST