September 18, 2007 3:00 am
When Thailand's army chief sent tanks rolling into Bangkok's leafy government district a year ago and declared the military was in charge, many Thais ex-pressed relief that an era of political turmoil had seemingly come to a bloodless end.
For months before the coup, the Thai capital had been gripped by mass protests against Thaksin Shinawatra, the charismatic billionaire prime minister loathed by Bangkok's urban elite and loved by the country's rural majority.
In seizing power, the army claimed its intervention was required to avoid violence and bloodshed, and to heal the bitter divisions in Thai society. They also vowed a quick restoration of demo-cracy, pledging to transfer power to an elected government within a year.
With the first anniversary of the coup now approaching tomorrow, the Thai army is on track to keep roughly to its promised timeline, with parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for late December.
But the military has had little success in its primary goal of politically neutralising Mr Thaksin, who won the adoration of many poor and working-class voters by offering cheap healthcare and other populist policies.
The Thai military is expected to use all the leverage at its disposal to try to prevent Mr Thaksin's loyalists from making a comeback and to ensure that any future post-election coalition government will protect them from the ousted leader's potential wrath. "They exiled Thaksin, they prosecuted him, and that has turned to persecution, but they still cannot kill him off from the political scene," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Chulalongkorn University political scientist. "This is an unfinished coup. The goalposts keep moving, and they cannot put down the Thaksin phenomenon."
Thailand's military leaders may not have fully appreciated the difficulties they would face when they decided to drive Mr Thaksin from power. Since 1932 Thailand has had numerous coups, and for the most part ousted leaders - usually military figures toppled by internal rivals - have quietly faded from the political scene. But Mr Thaksin, who was expected to romp to another easy election victory before the coup, has refused to adhere to the script. Thailand's Supreme Court last month issued an arrest warrant for the former tycoon and authorities are pushing forward with plans to try him on abuse of power charges, although he re-mains in exile in the UK. Authorities have frozen $1.9bn (€1.4bn, £950m) of his wealth and his once unbeatable Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party has been dissolved.
His loyalists, however, have regrouped under the auspices of the People's Power party, which has openly and repeatedly expressed its fealty to him and is seeking to take advantage of what remains of his strong popular support.
The PPP is led by Samak Sundaravej, a sharp-tongued veteran of rightwing politics, who has found common cause with Mr Thaksin in their mutual animus towards Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, the chairman of Thailand's privy council, widely seen as a major force behind the coup.
The PPP will go head to head against the Democrat party, which was blamed by many Thais for implementing a harsh International Monetary Fund austerity programme after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The party was also the main parliamentary opposition during Mr Thaksin's rule.
Led by Eton and Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrats face an uphill struggle to shed their image as bureaucratic and elitist and broaden their appeal to a wider swath of voters.
But the election will also figure a third force - the so-called For the Motherland group, which consists main-ly of defectors from Mr Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai.
Analysts believe the Motherland group's main purpose is to be a spoiler to split the PPP vote in the north and north-east, the former Thai Rak Thai heartland, which together have 212 seats in the new 480-seat parliament.
Even then, human rights groups are predicting significant military interference in the electoral process, with the poll likely to be one of the dirtiest and most bitterly contested. Sunai Phasuk, a political analyst with Hu-man Rights Watch, says the military "cannot allow this election to be free and fair".
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