Bangkok – The party of the fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won an overwhelming victory in a parliamentary election on Sunday that could turn Thai politics on its head and roll back the results of a coup that ousted Mr. Thaksin five years ago.
In a contest that was seen as a referendum on Thailand’s recent turmoil, the Pheu Thai party, headed by Mr. Thaksin’s youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, 44, appeared headed for an absolute majority of the 500-seat Parliament. With nearly all the votes counted, her party won a projected 261 seats.
With the governing Democrat party winning just 162 seats, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva conceded defeat.
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Ms. Yingluck, a businesswoman with no political experience, was selected to head the party by her brother, who called her his “clone.” She proved to be a brilliant campaigner.
The vote is a vindication for Mr. Thaksin, a populist champion of Thailand’s long marginalized rural poor who was elected prime minister twice, in 2001 and 2005, and removed in a coup in September 2006.
“I believe all sides have to respect the decision of the people,” he said Sunday, speaking to a Thai television station from Dubai, where he lives evading a conviction for abuse of power. “If any country doesn’t respect the decisions of its people, there’s no way it is going to find peace.” The vote had broader resonance as well, part of a rebalancing of Thailand’s hierarchical society that so far has played out in the streets, challenging the elite establishment and giving more voice to the poor.
“This is a slap in the face to the establishment for what they’ve done since the military coup in 2006,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University. “This is a new Thailand that they must learn to live with.”
He added: “This whole election is all about the awakened voices. These people discovered that they can actually have access and be connected to the system.”
The Pheu Thai party is supported by many of the “red shirt” protesters, representing the rural and urban poor, who are committed to Mr. Thaksin and staged a two-month rally that paralyzed parts of Bangkok a year ago.
The Democrat party, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is the party of the establishment, including royalists, old-money elite and high-ranking members of the military, and is at the top of a traditional hierarchical social and political system in Thailand. A military assault crushed the red-shirt protests in confrontations that killed about 90 people in April and May of last year.
A major challenge for Pheu Thai is to reach an accommodation with the politically powerful military, which ousted Mr. Thaksin, supported the Democrats and battled with the red shirts. In the near term, its reaction to the election could shape the outcome and rumors of a possible coup circulated during the campaign.
Sondhi Boonyarataglin, the general who led the 2006 coup, created his own political party and won two seats, including one for himself.
Ms. Yingluck said Sunday she was in discussions about forming a coalition with a small regional party, Chart Thai Pattana. That alliance would add 55 seats to a Pheu Thai government. She also left the door open for a wider coalition.
When the leaders of the 2006 coup returned power to the electorate in 2007, a party supported by Mr. Thaksin won an overwhelming victory, and the vote Sunday shows that his political power continues.
Mr. Thaksin won the loyalty of the poor as the first prime minister to address their needs, wooing them with populist programs including almost-free health care, debt moratoriums, support for farmers and cash handouts to villages.
Members of the Pheu Thai party initially said they would back a political amnesty, which would open the door for Mr. Thaksin’s eventual return and create a potential flash point with the military and others who oppose him. But the party later issued a statement saying that it did not support amnesty, a politically sensitive notion.
“In fact, yes, I really want to be home — as of yesterday,” Mr. Thaksin said in the television interview on Sunday. “But everything has to comply with proper conditions. I don’t want to be a problem. But if I go back, I have to be part of the solution, part of the answer.”
In the campaign, both parties focused on Mr. Thaksin, the country’s most dominating and divisive personality, who has been the de facto leader of Pheu Thai from his refuge in Dubai.
A Pheu Thai slogan was “Thaksin thinks and Pheu Thai does.”
Mr. Abhisit tried to demonize Mr. Thaksin, declaring in a final political rally that the election would be “the best opportunity to remove the poison of Thaksin from Thailand.”
But the nation’s problems run deeper and analysts say that it will take many years for the nation’s conflicts to be resolved.
“We must take the long view,” said Mr. Thitinan, the Chulalongkorn international studies program director. “This is a not a two-year or three-year exercise. We are talking about two or three decades of political maturation to come. It will be many years before we can reconcile the old order and the new order.”
In the northern city of Chiang Mai, Mr. Thaksin’s home, voters who cast ballots at a polling station in a Buddhist temple, expressed a mixture of hope and cynicism about the election.
“There’s been a huge amount of conflict in Thailand when you compare it with foreign countries,” said Kwanrudee Saengnon, 26. “It’s been a so-called democracy, not a real democracy. This time I’d like the majority to decide the winner. I really want democracy to decide the outcome.”
Watchara Sroysangwal, a 30-year-old communications company employee, said he voted for a small political party. “I have no hope for Thailand’s future,” he said. “They can put new faces on the stage but it’s going to be the same groups of people ruling the country anyway.”