Thai army chief intervenes in election

Thailand’s powerful army chief has made a dramatic political intervention in the run-up to the country’s hard-fought election by urging people not to vote for a party allied to the ousted premier, Thaksin Shinawatra.

In a move strongly condemned by the supporters of Mr Thaksin, General Prayuth Chan-ocha delivered a speech broadcast on two military-owned television channels in which he said verbal attacks against the monarchy had been increasing and urged people to vote for “good people” who had decent morals and “who know what is right and wrong”.

“Voters should use their good judgment to choose the best candidates to run the country efficiently. If you allow the election [result] to be the same as before, you will not get anything new and you will not see any improvement from this election,” he said, in a comments widely interpreted as an attack on Mr Thaksin, who lives in exile in Dubai after being convicted in absentia of corruption charges. “The actions and remarks of some politicians are not proper. Why vote for them? I want to ask you to vote for good people who are determined to work for the good of the country.”

His comments have sparked fresh controversy as Thailand prepares to vote on July. The most recent opinion polls give a clear lead to Mr Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party, whose election campaign is being led by his youngest sister, 43-year-old Yingluck Shinawatra, the party’s candidate for prime minister.

While the Democrat party headed by incumbent Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva insists it will secure enough seats to put it in a strong enough position to form another coalition government, there is growing anticipation that Pheu Thai could win. Earlier this week, the Bangkok Post published an internal police poll, which excluded Bangkok and the far south, which put Pheu Thai leading the election battle in half of 331 constituencies, with the Democrat party leading in just a quarter.

The actions of the army will be crucial in the days after polling. Amid mounting opposition from conservatives, Mr Thaksin was deposed by a bloodless coup in 2006, one of more than a dozen that have taken place since the end of absolute rule by the monarchy in 1932. Many of Mr Thaksin’s red shirts supporters are fearful the army may again step in, should Pheu Thai emerge ahead.

“Fear of a Pheu Thai victory has energised the head of the army…He has invoked the spectre of an anti-monarchy movement in a desperate attempt to convince people not to vote for [them], but it is not working,” wrote Ji Ungpakorn, an academic and red shirts supporter who now lives in Britain after being charged with draconian defamation laws that prohibit criticism of the monarchy. “The way in which the monarchy has consistently been used by the military to justify the 2006 coup, the destruction of democracy and the killings of unarmed demonstrators last year, and the fact that the king has remained silent about the prolonged crisis, allowing innocent people to be murdered, has changed people’s attitudes to the monarchy.”

With no love lost between Mr Thaksin and the military, which promotes itself as the defender of the country’s monarchy, in particular the ailing 83-year-old King Bhumibol, many observers fear a repeat of last year’s violence in Bangkok which left at least 90 people dead after red shirts took control of an area in the centre of one of the city’s shopping districts. After two months, troops moved in and forced out the protesters. More than 1,800 people were wounded. A tiny number of red shirts set fire to shops and malls as the troops moved in.

Pheu Thai hopes General Prayuth’s speech on Tuesday evening will backfire, encouraging more people to come out and vote for them. A party spokesman, Prompong Nopparit, told the Associated Press: “We don't see that he is in favour of any particular party or against any other party. Pheu Thai is not worried about it. It is the people who will determine the future of the country. Nobody can manipulate them.”

While it is seen as a major part of the country’s conservative establishment, the army is supposed to remain politically neutral. After Gen Prayuth made his speech, an army spokesman said he would not be speaking to the media until after election. Spokesman Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd said: “The army chief wanted to explain the army’s stance on the election and did not support or oppose any side. He was doing his job in a proper manner.”