Abhisit prepares for Thai election

Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand’s prime minister, is preparing for early elections in a political contest that could reopen the barely healed wounds of political clashes that led to 91 deaths eight months ago.

Mr Abhisit's term runs out at the end of 2011 but on Monday he said the ballot would be held within the next six months.

On Saturday, Mr Abhisit unveiled a “Thailand Reform Plan”, originally described as an attempt to address long-standing political grievances. But in reality it read like a populist election manifesto, complete with pledges of preschool education in every village, low-interest loans and improvements in access to justice.

“A dissolution of the House in the first half of next year [2011] is better than the second,” Mr Abhisit told the Bangkok Post in an interview conducted before the new year but published on Monday.

The prime minister said he was not “electorally threatened or intimidated” by the prospects of a vote, although many political scientists believe that the coalition led by his Democrat party faces a steep challenge if it is to beat the opposition led by the Puea Thai party.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the head of the Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok, believes that uncertainty about the outcome might persuade Mr Abhisit and his backers in the army and the bureaucracy to postpone the vote for as long as possible. But he warned of the risk of violent confrontation, whenever the vote is held.

“The campaigning will see some violence, maybe some assassinations or attempted assassinations,” said Mr Thitinan.

“There will be a lot of dirty tricks and Puea Thai will be at a disadvantage because they don’t have the support of the police and the army.”

The last four general elections have been won convincingly by parties led by or allied to Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist former prime minister who was removed in a military coup in 2006 and who lives in exile to avoid a prison term for corruption.

But the pro-Thaksin parliamentary opposition is in disarray, bruised by defections and searching for a new leader and a new policy platform to replace the manifesto now co-opted by the Democrats.

However, since coming to power in a parliamentary vote two years ago, Mr Abhisit’s Democrat-led coalition has struggled to make inroads into the solid support base established by Mr Thaksin.

The anti-establishment anger that fuelled last year’s demonstrations has been compounded by what Mr Thaksin’s redshirted supporters believe is a lack of accountability – no one has been charged with any of the 91 deaths – and there is little sign of a plan to heal the rifts.

Mr Abhisit promised a reconciliation plan in June as a “New Year's gift for the people” but the reform plan unveiled on Saturday had no detail about reconciliation, although it followed a common government theme that the demonstrations were ultimately inspired by economic disparity.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, Mr Abhisit’s spokesman, said on Monday: “If you reduce grievances and increase opportunities, the majority of ordinary people that have been affected by the income gap or unfair treatment will feel better”.

The protesters themselves made no economic demands, instead couching their grievances in terms of complaints about the subversion of democracy by the establishment elite and institutional double standards that discriminate against the poor and unconnected.

Mr Thitinan said: “It’s now about people’s rights and dignity and social justice”.

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