x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Thailand election too close to call as Cambodia border dispute looms large

Election results could set the stage for reconciliation, or they could spark further turmoil of the kind that saw more than 90 people killed in anti-government protests last year.

CHIANG MAI // Thailand's prime minister is campaigning across the country to shore up votes as his ruling party deals with a border dispute with Cambodia and the backlash over a security clampdown during last year's protests.

Sunday's election is too close to call, analysts said, and the results could set the stage for reconciliation, or they could spark further turmoil in this fractious nation that saw more than 90 people killed in anti-government protests last year.

Meanwhile in The Hague, judges are deliberating whether to wade into a border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia. If their ruling comes before Sunday, it will drop like a bombshell into an already tense campaign.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is considering a request by Cambodia to clarify a 1962 ruling that gave it ownership of an 11th-century Hindu temple and demarcated a section of border. Thailand has conceded the temple - much to the chagrin of nationalists - but says the court had no jurisdiction to draw the border, and that it relied on flawed maps.

The dispute has led to military clashes such as those that killed at least 10 people in February. It has become a political lightning rod in Thailand in the past few years during which confrontations with Cambodia have become more frequent.

Paul Chambers, an analyst at Chiang Mai's Payap University, said parties have consistently used strong rhetoric about the border dispute to gain support from Thai nationalists who form the backbone of the Yellow Shirt political movement. Yellow Shirt leaders meanwhile use the border issue to pressure parties into taking up their agenda.

"The Yellow Shirts really took up this issue in anticipation early this year that there would be elections," he said.

Perhaps in response, the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has strongly protested Cambodia's petition to the ICJ, asking Cambodia to withdraw its case and stating that the court had no right to demarcate the border.

As part of its request, Cambodia also asked the ICJ to order Thailand to withdraw troops from a disputed section of the border. The ICJ has not said when it will reach a decision, but an announcement during the campaign could be disastrous for Mr Abhisit, making him appear weak on the border issue.

Already he is struggling to win back Yellow Shirts whose support was crucial in installing him as prime minister in 2008, after a court decision removed a Red Shirt aligned party from government. But after throwing their weight behind the Democrats, many Yellow Shirt leaders have accused him of failing to reclaim from Cambodia what they consider Thai territory. Some have started a "vote no" campaign, encouraging supporters to withhold their votes from all parties.

If successful, the campaign will surely hurt Mr Abhisit and his Democrats, who desperately need votes from Bangkok's middle and upper classes, many of whom have supported the Yellow Shirts.

The party has already lost some of its support in the south, where the government is entrenched in a conflict with Islamic insurgents. Some Democrat MPs in that region refused to run for re-election, saying they did not stand a chance of winning, Thai media reported.

The Democrats are also unlikely to receive a majority of votes in the north or north-east, areas that predominantly support the Red Shirt movement, which is aligned with the opposition Phue Thai Party. The Red Shirts draw much support from the rural poor, who feel they have been excluded from Thailand's growing economy.

At a recent rally in the district of Mae Rim, Mr Abhisit was working hard to reverse that perception among a few hundred farmers. Hitting on a key issue, he spoke about rice subsidies his government had been maintaining, and promised to increase them.

But Mr Abhisit will have a tough time winning over Red Shirts. Many are still bitter that parties they elected to government were removed from power, either by a military coup or through judicial means.

That anger exploded last year when Red Shirts converged on Bangkok and occupied the city's financial district for almost three months until they were forced out. Ninety-one people died during the standoff between the Red Shirts and the military, and not one government official has been arrested in connection with the killings.

"If you are a supporter of the Red Shirts, you're not going to vote Democrat," said Napisa Waitoolkiat, a political scientist also at Payap University. "They really disapprove of the Democrats and how they dealt with the crackdown."

She said the most likely outcome of the election would be a majority win for Phue Thai. Ms Waitoolkiat said that such a scenario could allow a period of stability during which Thailand's deeply divided political movements could learn to coexist peacefully - provided that neither the military nor the courts intervened again.

Mr Chambers was more sceptical. He said a Phue Thai win would probably bring Yellow Shirts back into the streets agitating for change, which could come again in the form of a coup or judicial decision. A Democrat win could spark more protests from the Red Shirts.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae