On Sunday, July 3, Thailand will hold a general election, its second since a 2006 military coup unseated the elected government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a population of about 66 million, but its democracy has been plagued by corruption and repeated interference by the military.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: Located at a strategic crossroads in Asia filled with repressive neighbors like Myanmar and Communist Laos, Thailand has seen its reputation as a beacon of stability suffer badly over more than five years of political strife set in motion by Thaksin's ouster.
After more than a year ruled by a military-backed interim government, a December 2007 election returned a pro-Thaksin party to power. But fresh protests, court rulings and parliamentary maneuvering forced Thaksin's allies out in December 2008 and installed the rival Democrat Party of current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Thaksin's supporters then took to the streets, and their two months of anti-government protests last year degenerated into violence, leaving 91 people dead and about 1,800 injured.
The polarization between Thaksin's supporters and opponents remains the defining issue in Thai politics, with policies taking a back seat. Both the Democrats and their main opponents, the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party, tout a populist agenda.
Whatever the results of the election, few believe it will quietly accepted by the losers.
THE CONTESTANTS: Some 42 political parties are fielding 3,832 candidates for the 500-seat lower house of parliament. In a two-tier system of voting, 375 legislators will be elected by constituency by some 47 million eligible voters, while 125 "party-list" candidates will be chosen according to the proportion of votes each party receives nationwide on a separate ballot.
Only two parties have realistic expectations of capturing a large share of seats: the Democrats and the Pheu Thai Party. If neither captures an outright majority _ as seems likely _ then smaller established parties will hold the balance of power, and bargain hard for significant Cabinet posts.
The Democrat Party is the country's oldest, but has not placed first in an election since 1992. Its traditional strongholds are the south, from which many of its leaders hail, and Bangkok, though the capital's voters can be fickle. The party once took pride as a liberal opponent of military rule in decades gone by, but in recent times has stressed its royalist roots and found itself in alliance with the army.
Pheu Thai represents the third iteration of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party after electoral law violations saw its two predecessors disbanded by the courts. With Thaksin convicted of graft, in self-imposed exile and banned from politics, its de facto candidate for the prime minister job is Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's youngest sister. The party trades mostly on its identification with Thaksin, who remains hugely popular in the rural north and northeast and among many of Bangkok's working class for populist polices including subsidized housing and nearly free health care. Pro-Thaksin parties have won handily in all four elections they contested.
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: The state Election Commission, generally perceived as leaning against Thaksin, has broad powers to invalidate election results and disqualify candidates.
With the strong possibility that no party will win an absolute majority, smaller parties with reputations for seeking profit from public office can bargain for Cabinet seats, perpetuating the plague of money politics.
A Pheu Thai party victory bringing Thaksin's loyalists to power could prompt the army to stage another coup, especially if the new government moves to grant Thaksin amnesty to pave the way for his return. If the Democrats prevail, aggressive protests by Thaksin's supporters causing unrest could equally serve as an excuse for military intervention.