Feb 6 2014, 3:45pm CST | by Forbes
Despite the efforts of the anti-government, anti-election protesters calling themselves the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), at least in English, parliamentary elections did proceed in Thailand this past Sunday.
Not always smoothly, voting was carried out in almost 90% of voting districts. The bad news is that 516 polling stations did not open, usually because protesters blocked the delivery of ballots. And last month, some Southern candidates were prevented from even registering to run. As a result, there will soon be formal legal challenges regarding the election’s validity A February 23 election is already scheduled for the 440,000 voters that were blocked by protesters from early voting January 26.
Meanwhile, government paralysis and motley protests continue and unpaid rice farmers are creating their own protest movement. If she can come up with the money, it now appears that “caretaker” Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has the authority to pay the farmers.
But can she and her caretaker cabinet now approve, for example, applications for privileges under various Board of Investment programs or the budgets for state enterprises? BOI applications from foreign and Thai companies alike have been languishing since Yingluck dissolved parliament almost two months ago. I don’t know the answers and Thais and Thai media seem equally stumped. We will have to wait to so see what courts decide. Of course, the uncertainty is also hammering the economy in many other ways.
Pheu Thai prevails; opposition boycott
Will the PDRC protesters keep up their demonstrations? Well, they have withdrawn from some areas but are continuing to squat in four major Bangkok intersections (details below). They have also withdrawn from government offices they were occupying. With their numbers dwindling and debts piling up, threats to reoccupy the offices strike me as are rather hollow.
Because the Democrat Party, the principal opposition party, boycotted the elections, there has never been any doubt that the Pheu Thai party, led by incumbent Yingluck, would win the most votes. The official count isn’t in yet but Pheu Thai could win 300 seats this time. In the 2011 election, Pheu Thai won 265 seats and 48% of the vote; the Democrats then won 35% of the vote and 159 seats.
Estimates now are that about 20 million people voted, which could mean that, voluntarily or not, at least as many didn’t show up at the polls. The Election Commission says there are 44.5 million registered voters. The Nation newspaper puts the number at 48 million. I have also seen estimates of 42 million and 39 million registered voters. So somewhere between 30% and 40% of the electorate showed up. Not surprisingly, turnout was low in Bangkok (at 26%) because of the protesters’ efforts. It was also low in southern provinces because of loyalty to the Democrat Party, PDRC’s boycott campaign and protesters’ considerable success in obstructing the delivery of ballots.
As usual with parties affiliated with the Shinawatra family, turnout was high in the strongholds of the North and Northeast. It was reassuring to see the top army commanders voting, though less so when Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said he would “rather not say whether I approve of elections.” Still he has resisted even hinting at a coup, which is what many PDRC protesters seem to want.
Voter participation has been steadily rising in recent parliamentary elections—57% of eligible voters participated in 2007 and around 75% in 2011–but you can hardly blame voters for not exercising their rights. Those staying away from the polls don’t necessarily agree with the Democrat Party’s boycott stance. Given the violence last Sunday on Chaeng Wattana Road, in which four people were shot when election officials were attempting to transfer ballot boxes, Bangkok area voters had good reason to fear approaching their voting centers.
Legal challenges to election
Some legal challenges to the election’s validity have already been launched. Democrat Party executives Tuesday said they would petition the National Anti-Corruption Commission to impeach Yingluck and her entire cabinet for pushing for an election on February 2. After she dissolved her government in December in the face of the initial demonstrations, the constitution required that a date for elections be set within 60 days.
The Democrat Party then announced its boycott. Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva is among the Democrats who have since spoken in support of the PDRC aims: to suspend parliamentary government indefinitely while a “people’s council” of unspecified people undertakes reforms to either eliminate corruption or “end the Thaksin regime”, Thaksin being the telecom tycoon and brother of Yingluck who was ousted by military coup in 2006. The national police office says it will pursue charges against both protesters who disrupted who blocked voters and the conveyance of ballot boxes as well as against election officials that abandoned polling booths. But it can take years for cases to even reach trial. The hundreds of protesters who seized the airports in 2008 have yet to be prosecuted.
It’s even possible that the Democrat Party, the oldest in Thailand, could be dissolved for boycotting two elections within an eight-year period. It boycotted an election back in 2006 when Thaksin was still in office.
Is it safe to stay in Bangkok?
Bangkok is very safe or as nearly safe as it usually is. If you’re hoping for the thrills and photo opportunities of Tahrir Square or Kiev, you are going to be sorely disappointed. I bet when most tourists and business visitors see the sparse encampments, they wonder, “Is that it? Where is the city or country spiraling out of control?” Daily life is running much as usual.
That being said, I’m not an echo chamber for the preternaturally upbeat Tourism Authority of Thailand. Twelve people have died since the protests began three months ago. Most of these cases stemmed from random attacks on PDRC gatherings. In the sole targeted incident, a PDRC leader was shot dead while speaking from a pickup truck. My advice, therefore, is to avoid the protest sites or walk through quickly when you can’t. I walk through them all the time. The crowds are rarely dense. Protesters aren’t scary. Often they even bring small children.
If you’re staying in the prime tourist sites around the old city of Rattanakosin and close to Ratchadamnoen and Khao San Road, however, you might not even be aware that there are rallies in other parts of the city.
In other areas, I’d recommend staying in a hotel close to the Skytrain or subway lines because traffic is still jammed up. Regardless of how few people are actually occupying the sites, traffic flow is still diverted around the sites.
Protesters have abandoned their sites at very central Victory Monument and in the Ladprao intersection to the north. Weeks ago, they left the Democracy Monument, which will be familiar to tourists since it’s so close to Khao San Road and the old royal city tourist sites. Protesters also withdrew from the Rama VIII Bridge on Wednesday. This bridge crosses the Chao Phraya River a few kilometers north of the old royal city and Banglampoo so probably isn’t familiar to either tourists or business visitors but the camp-out on the bridge was one more source of traffic snarls.
Locations of PDRC rally sites
Three sites are along the major shopping strip beginning at the MBK and Discovery Center shopping malls (this is the Pathumwan neighborhood) and running along Sukhumvit Road to Sukhumvit Soi 21; this intersection is called Asoke and is anchored by the Terminal 21 mall. This map of rally sites is a little confusing but note the five intersections listed below it.
Protesters are easy to identify by their red-white-and-blue clothing and paraphernalia—the colors of the Thai flag. The biggest annoyance: traffic has to be rerouted and a normally direct taxi ride now can take twice as long. Fortunately, the Skytrain and MRT (subway) are running as usual, even though at commuting hours the cars are more crowded than usual. Take them whenever you can.
Asoke is probably the biggest rally site. The photo above is the north side of Asoke intersection, viewed from the Skytrain station, in the late afternoon last week. Even though a speaker (Suthep, I think) was revving up, you can see that the biggest crowd of the day wasn’t more than a few thousand.
The next biggest site has been the Rajaprasong intersection, which is several blocks east of Pathumwan. Rajaprasong, bordered by CentralWorld mall, Erawan Shrine and several posh hotels, was the site of the much larger, two-month demonstrations in spring 2010.
The fourth site is in Lumpini Park and the stretch of Rama IV Road running between Silom Road and Sathorn roads. It might be the biggest site now that other sites have shut down. At any rate, it has created major traffic messes. Fortunately, both the MRT and Skytrain have stations at Silom-Rama IV intersection. Lumpini has an MRT station as well. Take public transit as far as you can, then walk or hop on a motorcycle taxi.
Shopping malls and immigration offices
The Siam Center and Paragon malls between Pathumwan and Rajaprasong, which had been closing at 6 pm, this week began staying open until 9 pm, just an hour earlier than normal. Big C, close to Rajaprasong has been closing at 8 pm, two hours earlier than usual. Terminal 21 mall, at the Asoke intersection, usually is open until 10 pm has been closing around 9 pm from my casual observation.
There is also a small rally site along Chaeng Wattana Road. This is a wide thoroughfare way to the north of the city but all too familiar to many foreigners because a huge government complex that includes the Immigration Department is located there. Since the Bangkok Shutdown began on January 13, parts of the complex have been occupied by protesters and Immigration services have been running at two temporary offices.
On Wednesday some state workers were allowed back to work, so perhaps the Immigration office there will soon be operational there again. For the time being, those needing to extend a visa or attend to other business involving a passport can go to temporary offices in Ladprao and Suksawat Road, as described here. Keep an eye on this website for updates.
Source: Forbes Business
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