“Land of Smiles” braces for ballot showdown

Rallies in Bangkok have marked the final countdown to Thailand’s 3 July general election amid fears the latest battle in the nation’s five-year political feud could again end in blood.

Dubbed the “Land of Smiles”, the popular tourist destination that doubles as South East Asia’s second-biggest economy has been bitterly polarized since former populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by the military in 2006, now living in exile to avoid a jail term for corruption.

Tensions have simmered ever since and came to a head in April and May of last year, turning the streets of Bangkok into a war zone when thousands of Thaksin’s red-shirted supporters clashed with the army, leaving 91 dead and more than 2,000 injured.

On the cusp of Sunday’s election, Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, on his return from Bangkok’s Tein Fah temple told The Weekend Australian his prayers were “For the country”. 

Polls show his military-backed Democrat party is at least 15 percentage points behind the opposition Puea Thai (For Thais), led by Thaksin’s sister and political novice Yingluck Shinawatra, who, according to The Australian, seems likely to become the nation’s first woman prime minister.

Reuters pits the election as likely to result in a coalition government, noting that “the election or its outcome could be disputed, raising the possibility of protests or intervention by the judiciary or military”.

The last four general elections, reports the Financial Times, were won convincingly by parties led by or allied to Thaksin, with Mr Abhisit’s Democrat Party not winning an election in almost 20 years.

It was in 2008 that his coalition came to power in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that dissolved the ruling pro-Thaksin People Power Party after finding it guilty of fraud in the 2007 elections.

A string of colourful candidates has also grabbed headlines and entertained voters in the lead-up to the election, not least former brothel king-turned anti-corruption champion Chuwit Kamolvisit.