Q&A: Thailand election

A woman checks a list before casting her ballot at a polling station in Bangkok, June 26, 2011 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There are many parties - but few will gain a seat

Thailand has held its first general election since 2007. The country has a long history of political protests and military coups, but after a relatively peaceful campaign, there is hope that this election could finally provide stability.

What's at stake?

About 47 million people are eligible to vote. They have been choosing from 3,832 candidates representing 42 parties. In reality, only a handful of parties will win seats. There are 500 seats up for grabs in the House of Representatives. If any party wins more than 250 seats, they will be able to form a majority government. If no party wins a majority, they will have to form a coalition.

Who are the main players?

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is once again standing for the Democrat Party - Thailand's oldest political party. But recent history is against him: the Democrats have not won a general election in almost two decades. He came to power after a ruling by the Constitutional Court banned his predecessor for electoral fraud. Although Thailand has avoided many of the ill effects of the global financial crisis under his stewardship, and he faced down huge protests, his critics portray him as an uncharismatic technocrat.

Mr Abhisit's main rival is Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. She is standing for the Pheu Thai Party. Her candidacy was announced relatively late in the campaign, and seems to have caught the government off guard. Her non-confrontational style and photogenic campaign posturing have been much commented on in the Thai media. Her critics, though, fear she and her party are a proxy for Mr Thaksin's continuing ambitions.

There is an array of smaller parties, which will be involved in horse-trading should the two main parties not get a simple majority.

What are the main issues?

Both parties have similar-sounding policies and priorities. They have each promised to raise the minimum wage; improve transport connections to the north of the country; make healthcare more widely available and affordable; and continue to fund microfinance schemes in rural areas.

The real battle is not one of policy. Mr Thaksin's influence has loomed large throughout the campaign. He is a deeply divisive figure. His fans - many of them in poor rural areas - hail him as the only politician who really addressed their concerns; his detractors say he is a dangerous corrupt demagogue.

Ms Yingluck has not disguised her affection for her brother, but claims she would be her own woman if elected. Mr Abhisit has made increasingly bleak predictions about what would happen if Mr Thaksin's allies were voted back in - talking of unrest and instability. Mr Thaksin has given a series of interviews from his home in Dubai, trying to placate his enemies.

What is the most likely outcome?

Both main parties have agreed to respect the result of the election and allow the party with the most seats to try to form a government first. According to the opinion polls, Pheu Thai is likely to win most seats, but not a majority. The party would then have 30 days after parliament reconvenes to build a coalition. If they fail, then the Democrats would try.

But analysts have expressed fear that a close election result, followed by the kind of opaque horse-trading that Thai politics has become infamous for, could ruin the credibility of any future government. The worry is that either one of the partisan groups of activists - the yellow shirts or the red shirts - could once again take to the streets to try to impose their will. Alternatively, the army may decide to step in and decide who takes power.

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