Election results are a rude wake-up call for Thaksin
The returns from Sunday's election are defying all predictions. Even Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his all-powerful Thai Rak Thai Party have been caught off guard, falsely believing as they did that the stage-managed election was to be a sure bet to reclaim their political mandate.
The overwhelming number of abstention votes are sending out the loudest of political messages, one that Thaksin is finding hard to ignore. It is tantamount to a rejection of what has become known as "Thaksinomics" - a CEO-style of leadership signified by corruption, cronyism and conflicts of interest.
Until the first ballot was cast, the election results appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Thai Rak Thai was running without a significant rival. Thaksin's populist appeal was still his strongest asset. The campaign to oust the business tycoon turned politician from office seemed to be confined to the urban masses. And from all appearances, the campaign for voters to go to the polls but abstain as a gesture of protest simply did not seem to be gaining much steam.
So everybody was stunned when it became clear from early returns that there were far more abstention votes than one would have expected, even outstripping votes for Thai Rak Thai candidates in most constituencies, particularly in Bangkok and the South.
The biggest question is what triggered the massive "no vote" now threatening to deprive Thaksin and his party of legitimacy.
The months-long demonstrations led by the People's Alliance for Democracy, of course, were most instrumental in igniting the anti-Thaksin sentiment that eventually spread to practically all sectors of society. Even though daily street rallies drew tens of thousands of people on each occasion, they were not seen as a real impediment to Thaksin's return to power.
But a series of events immediately preceding the election had the effect, many believe, of convincing undecided or reluctant voters their voices could make a difference. Some of the incidents sound isolated but combined were powerful enough to mobilise legions.
One was an encounter the PM apparently didn't expect - especially not after being assured his visit to one of Bangkok's most famous open markets in Soi Lalaisap would be carefully stage-managed. It was so meticulously planned that many of the shop-owners were prepared to parade out with red roses to offer to Thaksin in a choreographed show of support.
But then the unexpected happened. A group of angry shopkeepers led by three ladies broke the silence in a food court where the prime minister was enjoying a bowl of noodles, yelling what has become a familiar refrain: "Thaksin, get out!" Thaksin was no less visibly shaken by the angry chant than the members of his entourage who had planned the visit as a well-publicised campaign event on behalf of the Thai Rak Thai candidate for that area's constituency. For the first time, people were telling him right to his face to get out.
It was without a doubt an act of extreme courage, considering the circumstances of the moment and possible consequences. Widely publicised in the media, it had the effect of inspiring, even emboldening, ordinary citizens who were frustrated with current political leadership but too timid to speak out.
Then last Thursday, more than 2,000 people calling themselves the Caravan of the Poor blockaded the offices of the Nation Multimedia Group on Bang Na-Trat Road, protesting an article deemed lese majeste that had been published earlier in Kom Chad Luek, a Thai-language daily belonging to the group. Although the protest was portrayed as a show of loyalty to the monarchy, its real motive was partly to intimidate the press and partly to flex some political muscles.
The incident, however, backfired. Instead of silencing the media or cowing critics of the government, it galvanised them. The fact that a certain political figure closely associated with the government was behind the potentially violent protest didn't escape the public's attention.
On the same night, former prime minister Chuan Leekpai and Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva were sent running for their lives as hundreds of Thaksin supporters, pelting them with eggs and other projectiles, gate-crashed their Chiang Mai rally. It was a blatant act of violence that flew in the face of democracy. Ordinary people, even those with no real Democrat sympathies, were shocked. What disturbed them even more was the belief that the attack had been sanctioned by the powers that be.
Then early on election day, leading Chulalongkorn University lecturer Chaiyan Chaiyaporn defiantly tore up his ballot before an army of cameramen at a polling booth. He not only sent a powerful political message, but also inspired many who watched his bold act on television or heard about it on radio to come forward themselves to register their own rejection of the ruling party through the ballot box.
If the anti-Thaksin demonstrations that so rattled the political leadership were the starting point, these subsequent incidents probably constituted the tipping point that may eventually pave the way for Thaksin's exit. But the question is whether his will be a graceful exit or one with a high price to be paid in political and social harmony.