BANGKOK, July 25 (Reuters) – A jailed Thai anti-government protest leader accused of terrorism faces the ruling party on Sunday in a Bangkok by-election that could signal whether a bloody army crackdown has changed the political landscape.
The vote for just three seats in parliament won’t affect Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s ruling Democrats’ hold on power but it could signal whether the unrest that killed at least 89 people will hurt his party in national elections next year.
“The race is very important for both parties because the result, as well as the margin won, will be seen as a symbolic statement in a tense and divided political landscape,” said Karn Yuenyong, director of the independent Siam Intelligence Unit.
The seat, covering only part of the capital, is expected to be won by the ruling Democrats whose fractious six-party coalition has a 75-seat majority in the 480-seat parliament.
But the margin could offer a critical measure of support for the anti-government “red shirt” protest movement in Bangkok after their festive, flag-waving rallies in March descended into gun fights and violent clashes in April and May that frightened off tourists and hurt Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.
Unofficial results of the vote in Bangkok’s Constituency 6 are expected before 8 p.m. (1300 GMT).
The opposition candidate, 45-year-old businessman Korkaew Pikulthong of the Puea Thai Party, was arrested in May for allegedly encouraging violence, a charge he denies. He has put his chances of winning at 50-50 while campaigning from prison, saying he has public sympathy for being held without bail.
He faces formidable odds but a victory would be a powerful blow to Abhisit and “symbolically show there is real opposition, even in Bangkok, to the government’s recent action”, said Karn.
A loss would reinforce the view that Bangkok generally backs Abhisit’s tough measures, but extrapolating the result as a clear prediction of the general election is hard because the district has voted differently from other regions in the past.
Korkaew says the government has helped his rival by maintaining a state of emergency in Bangkok since April 7, allowing authorities to detain opposition members without charge, censor the press, ban public gatherings and freeze bank accounts.
Korkaew’s party, closely allied with self-exiled and graft-convicted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is facing Democrat Panich Wikisreth, a former deputy Bangkok mayor allied with royalist “yellow shirts” who led a successful 2006 campaign to oust Thaksin by military coup.
A win for the opposition, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out. Historically, the seat has gone both ways.
A candidate for a Thaksin-allied party lost the district in 2007 to the Democrats by just a few thousand votes. The seat became vacant when the incumbent, a Democrat, died.
No single party has historically dominated the district of about 536,000 people. Thaksin’s now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party has won the seat in the past.
The vote is the first in Bangkok since troops forcibly dispersed thousands of protesters in a May 19 operation that sparked deadly rioting. Nearly 40 buildings were set ablaze, including the stock exchange and Thailand’s top shopping mall.
Thailand’s economy and its financial markets have recovered, helped by an air of stability since the army operation. An opposition win could raise new questions over whether Abhisit can sustain that stability, especially if the decree is lifted.
The red shirts, supporters of twice-elected Thaksin, say Abhisit has no popular mandate and came to power illegitimately, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous government.
Abhisit says he was voted into office by the same parliament that picked his Thaksin-allied predecessors. (Additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja and Ploy Ten Kate; Editing by Sugita Katyal)