THAILAND went ahead with the polls on Feb 2 despite a boycott by the opposition Democrat Party and blockades by anti-government protesters.
Unsurprisingly, the election failed to resolve the political deadlock. Yet, despite the incomplete and inconclusive election results, of which only 89.2 per cent is completed, electoral democracy ironically works in Thailand.
The opposition boycotted the polls because it believed the outcome would only perpetuate the influence of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Thai politics. But preliminary results released by the Election Commission of Thailand show that the self-exiled tycoon can be defeated at the ballot box.
Out of 43 million eligible voters in Thailand, around 20 million, or about 47 per cent, cast their ballots, according to preliminary results.
An estimated 8 per cent of voters checked the ''no vote'' box on the ballot sheet (up from 3 per cent in the last election in 2011), while an estimated 5.7 per cent of the votes were spoiled (up from 4.3 per cent in 2011).
Most anti-government protesters expressed their political stances by staying away from the ballot box. And yet, contrary to what many analysts expected, the ruling Puea Thai Party did not garner a majority of votes. It won only a third of the valid votes cast, according to preliminary estimates.
The Feb 2 election is the first time a political party under Thaksin's control and fronted by his nominees has failed to win an outright majority.
It is a remarkable outcome given that Thaksin's political vehicles won by crushing margins in five previous polls, in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011.
Past electoral outcomes
IN THE December 2007 election, which took place after Thaksin was overthrown in the September 2006 coup, the margin between his People's Power Party and the Democrat Party was the closest.
Each side garnered 37 per cent of the popular vote, although the overall number of constituency and party-list seats favoured Thaksin's party by a margin of 233 to 165 in a 480-member Lower House.
But by July 2011, despite having been in power for 21/2 years, the Democrat Party lost to Thaksin's Puea Thai by 159 to 265, when the national assembly reverted to 500 members. The partylist count was expanded to 125 from 100 lawmakers to give the Democrat Party better odds. Yet, Puea Thai still surpassed the Democrat Party by a margin of 61 to 44 on the party-list votes.
The most telling indicator this time was the voter turnout. Between 2001 and 2011, the average nationwide voter turnout was 71 per cent. But the voter participation rate dove to 47 per cent on Feb 2.
For Bangkok, where average turnout usually tracks the national figures closely, only 26 per cent came out to vote - an unsurprising outcome in view of the strong anti-government sentiments in the capital.
The situation in the Puea Thai Party's heartland in the north and north-east regions is worth highlighting. In these two regions which account for more than half of the national electorate, turnout barely exceeded 50 per cent, according to preliminary results.
An overwhelmingly high turnout of more than 70 per cent in these two regions, on the other hand, would have boded well for Puea Thai, and would be seen as a form of protest against the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee ( PDRC).
Low voter turnout
THE relatively low turnout of just over 50 per cent in the north and north-east, which clocked turnout rates of around 75 per cent in past elections, is a setback for the ruling party. It shows that Puea Thai's support in the north and north-east has been dented - a sign that the effects of Thaksin's populist policies are wearing off.
Despite a low voter turnout of 47 per cent, the significance of the Feb 2 vote should not be understated. It allowed the 20 million- strong pro-election bloc to finally exercise their democratic right at the ballot box. It gave them a chance to have their say following months of continual brinkmanship and turmoil in Bangkok.
If the Feb 2 election had been postponed or cancelled, their frustration and disenchantment might have boiled over. The result could be more people taking to the streets, heightening the risk of more violence in the country.
For those who did not cast their vote, the message that they are sending is equally important. A comparison with the voter turnout rates in past elections indicates a drop of around 24 percentage points this year, even though the circumstances are remarkably different.
Had this group of voters turned up on Feb 2, chances are their votes would have gone to opposition parties such as the Democrat Party.
There are several reasons to explain the low turnout. One could be the PDRC's efforts to thwart the Feb 2 election, and another could be the recent expose of the alleged failings of the Yingluck government.
A spate of corruption scandals, the unsustainability of the rice subsidy scheme, and the controversial amnesty and Senate amendment Bills have raised awareness that Thailand needs more check-and-balance mechanisms.
Another reason so many voters opted out could be that they were fed up with the political crisis which has gripped the country for years. Or maybe they felt intimidated by the threats issued by the PDRC and feared for their personal safety.
Sadly, Thais will never know why voter turnout this time was so low in a country more usually known for its high voter participation. With the Democrats choosing not to run in the election and the PDRC anti-election campaign, it is difficult to pinpoint the real reason behind so many people staying away this time.
Even though the full results are not out yet, one clear message has emerged. For the ruling Puea Thai and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Thaksin, staying in office by dominating elections can no longer be taken for granted.
Losers all round
THEY are not the only losers this time. The PDRC protesters did not win either as the election took place despite its vow to prevent it.
The Democrat Party could have won, but it did not because it chose not to participate in the election, a strategic miscalculation by its leaders. It was the party's second boycott in four elections.
Thailand's precarious electoral democracy can be made into the ultimate winner if previous electoral losers realise that they have a chance of winning future elections.
They need to work harder and play within the rules of the game instead of holding the country hostage through crippling street protests.
If Thai democracy takes a detour or is derailed, it will be difficult for the Thai people to find a way back. It is better to fix the system from within than to look for a panacea from outside.
Otherwise, Thailand may find itself lost in a political wilderness.
The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.
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