Thailand’s prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva sallied forth in the rain in Bangkok’s Chinatown yesterday, greeting lottery-ticket vendors, poking his head into the New Empire hotel, venturing into the Canton House restaurant, drumming up support for his Democrat party in tomorrow’s election.
But when he wasn’t smiling at voters, his expression was bleak. Asked if he was happy the end of campaigning was in sight, he laughed. “It’s fun,” he told The Times. “I always enjoy it”.
The polls show Mr Abhisit’s military-backed Democrat party is at least 15 percentage points behind the opposition Puea Thai party, and most pundits in Thailand have just about written off his chances of staying on as prime minister.
And he has had to fight his election battles with a man who isn’t even in Thailand. Ousted in a military coup in 2006, prosecuted, convicted and forced into exile: former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has managed to confound his critics and looks set for a triumphant return to the land of his birth. Convicted of corruption, the telecoms billionaire jumped bail in 2008 and he has lived abroad ever since. His resurgence has infuriated Thailand’s establishment which had hoped for a smooth continuation of the status quo.
But Mr Abhisit hasn’t given up. “The latest published polls may have us behind, but we are convinced that the momentum is behind us and we’ve had tremendous responses in the last couple of weeks, so we’re confident,” he told Agence France Presse. Yet his campaign has been hampered by voter resentment of steadily rising commodity prices: everything from eggs to palm oil costs more in Thailand, and voters have noticed.
The long-anticipated election has entertained Thai voters with a cast of colourful candidates; from one-time brothel king Chuwit Kamolvisit, who had a Damascene conversion to become an anti-corruption crusader and can now be seen in campaign posters with his bull terrier Motomoto; to Sophon Damnui, a candidate for the Chart Pattana Puea Pandin party, who is taking credit for persuading China to extend the stay of Lin Ping, possibly the world’s only baby panda with her own dedicated 24-hour reality television channel.
For its part, the misnamed People’s Alliance for Democracy doesn’t want its supporters to vote for anyone. A forest of PAD billboards around Bangkok show clothed buffaloes, lizards, dogs and a monkey with the slogan: “Don’t let these animals into parliament”.
But the Puea Thai (For Thais) party, descended from a line of parties aligned with Mr Thaksin, has taken control of the campaign and is charging towards the finish line, armed with a clutch of populist policies, including lifting the minimum wage; high-speed rail lines to certain regional centres, and a massively expanded monorail network in Bangkok.
The party’s prime ministerial hopeful, Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra, has harnessed her brother’s popularity and now seems likely to become Thailand’s first woman prime minister. The 44-year-old business executive has never held political office, but she has become a practiced gladhander, criss-crossing Thailand on a punishing schedule of campaign events. Puea Thai’s slogan, “Thaksin Thinks; Puea Thai Acts”, makes it clear that Mr Thaksin has the power in the party, but Ms Yingluck has tried to maintain she is not a clone, as her brother once described her.
The election appears to have been relatively clean by Thai standards, although at least two canvassers have been shot dead, an MP shot and wounded, and there have been the usual reports of massive vote-buying. But most fears have centred on a possible post-election military coup if Puea Thai wins the election.