BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand will hold a general election on July 3 in what is expected to be a close contest that could reignite a violent political conflict that has dogged the country for five years.
In a televised address to the divided nation late on Monday, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said King Bhumibol Adulyadej had endorsed the election and parliament would be dissolved on Tuesday.
Abhisit, who has been accused by his opponents of lacking a mandate and of clinging on to power, said the election would be a step forward for the country.
“I believe a dissolution of parliament provides a new beginning for the people and progress for Thailand and for effective problem-solving process for the people and their families within the democratic system,” Abhisit said.
“For that, I am dissolving the parliament willingly.”
The stakes are higher than at any time since a 2006 bloodless coup removed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and plunged Thailand into a crisis broadly pitting the rural and urban poor supporters of Thaksin against the military and establishment elite that has backed Abhisit.
“Results will be hard to predict this time,” said Siripan Noksuan, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
“Most surveys are predicting close polls and the lack of a clear decisive win is making everybody uneasy. The end of the crisis is difficult to foresee.”
The poll will be Abhisit’s first test of popular support since his coalition government came to power in late 2008 in a parliamentary vote the opposition said was arranged in the army barracks.
A court dissolved the previous pro-Thaksin ruling party for electoral fraud, which coincided with an eight-day blockade of Bangkok’s main airports by the powerful “yellow shirts” anti-Thaksin group.
The election may be an opportunity to heal political divisions but some fear it could also push Thailand back to the brink of chaos after violent anti-government protests last year in which 91 people died.
A state investigation into what was Thailand’s worst political violence in recent history has been largely inconclusive and critics say a government-backed national reconciliation process has failed.
The pro-Thaksin “red shirts” who battled the military in central Bangkok in April and May last year have said they would respect the results of the poll as long as there was no blatant, heavy-handed intervention by “unelected powers”.
Abhisit’s Democrat Party has not won an election in two decades, but analysts said the odds are in its favour because of new electoral rules and disarray inside the opposition Puea Thai party, which still needs to settle on a new leader and line up candidates.
Thailand’s economy, Southeast Asia’s second largest, is performing strongly and Abhisit has rolled out populist economic policies and subsidies targeting the poor, the vast majority of voters.
But the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai remains popular in the vote-rich north and northeast, strengthened by a sense of alienation and resentment among the red shirts, particularly after the violent end to the protest last year.
The party’s two previous incarnations have finished first in every election in the past decade and several opinion polls suggest it could prevail again, although by a small margin.
In a recent survey of 2,143 eligible voters by Assumption University, 36.4 percent of respondents said they would vote for Puea Thai and 34.1 percent for Abhisit’s Democrats.
Puea Thai had better scores than the Democrats on almost all categories, including policies, vision and administrative efficiency. The Democrats led in just one, “integrity and transparency”.
Near-daily rumours about a coup in a country that has seen 18 military takeovers or attempted putsches since 1932 highlights the uncertainty and risks surrounding the poll.
Analysts said the current government’s royalist and military backers are unlikely to give way quietly if Puea Thai wins, possibly using judicial intervention or a coup to restore the status quo and keep Thaksin’s allies at bay.
That could in turn lead to a new and stronger wave of anti-government street protests. Similarly, if Puea Thai forms a government, yellow shirt demonstrators who helped undermine the last two Thaksin-backed ruling parties could reignite crippling street campaigns.
Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Martin Petty and Nick Macfie