Thailand’s political descent, which began with November’s anti-government protests, has reached free-fall. The snap elections recently proved inconclusive. The caretaker administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra lacks sufficient authority to govern and looks untenable.

What matters most is how long the crisis lasts and how deep it becomes. If stability is restored in the weeks to come without widespread violence, characteristic Thai resilience may carry the day. But if the instability persists for months, Thailand’s shock absorbers may fail. This could result in unpredictable violence leading to structural problems. Macro-policy institutions would wobble. The country’s appeal to investors and tourists would wane.

When anti-government protesters under the banner of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee took to Bangkok’s streets, they took Yingluck’s government to task for attempting to pass a law that would have absolved her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (now in self-imposed exile), of a criminal conviction for corruption. This manoeuvre, which would also have exonerated protagonists in a decade-long political crisis, has become Yingluck’s undoing.

The Yingluck government banked on the election to buy time and gain a new mandate. But the polls were boycotted by the opposition Democrat party. The election commission favoured deferring until all parties were able to run under more peaceful circumstances. The protesters, adamant that political reforms were imperative before any election, obstructed voting in some areas. On the other side, the pro-government “red shirts” in the countryside, along with pro-democracy activists, feared any delay would derail democratic rule and play into the hands of anti-government protesters.

Crucial indicator

In the event Thaksin’s ruling party, Pheu Thai, failed to win outright for the first time since 2001. Since it was running uncontested or facing easy contests in most provinces, turnout became the crucial indicator. As in past elections, a high turnout in the heartlands of the north and northeast, which account for more than half the electorate, would have validated the government’s legitimacy. But average participation of 71 per cent since 2001 shrank to 46 per cent. In the heartlands, barely 50 per cent showed up.

In Bangkok turnout was 26 per cent. Almost 11 per cent of precincts were unable to stage the polls because of a lack of candidates and obstacles to voting in areas including the south and Bangkok that are strongholds of the Democrat party.

Overall, the appeal of Thaksin’s party has been eroded significantly — yet it is a pity that the opposition party chose not to run. In a free and fair contest, the margins would have been close, and other parties would have had a chance to form a government that excluded Thaksin’s party. The protesters succeeded in exposing the graft and mismanagement of the government. Thaksin’s amnesty gambit was roundly deplored by all sides. Policy missteps such as an ill-conceived and lossmaking rice subsidy scheme , which has yet to compensate myriad farmers for their crops, undermined government performance, too.

The government could also be vulnerable to fraud and corruption allegations arising from ill-conceived policies, including the allegedly corrupt rice scheme. Another relates to Pheu Thai’s previous attempts to amend the constitution. Either of these could dislodge Yingluck from office. It would be similar to 2008, when another of Thaksin’s proxy governments met its demise.

If Yingluck is ejected from office, we can expect an appointed government of some variety to try to usher in reforms before returning the mandate to the people. Thaksin’s regime would probably be purged. The decisive question would be how the pro-Thaksin red shirts would respond. If they rise up, as in 2009-10, their fury at what they see as disenfranchisement could bring violence. But if they feel betrayed by Thaksin’s selfish amnesty and fed up with his party’s sputtering policies, the majority of the electorate may be ready for a grand realignment that marginalises the Thaksin camp.

Either way, the election has shown Thaksin can be beaten at the polls. Thailand’s best way forward is to stay within the democratic system, enticing the protesters to disband, the Democrats to rejoin the electoral fray, and the Yingluck government to agree to reforms supervised by a neutral third party.

Despite the grievances of protesters of varying colours, a coup and judicial interventions of recent years, electoral democracy works. The temptation to veer off this path is strong in Bangkok but must be resisted. A democratic Thailand that can settle scores through the ballot box, reform and compromise is a boon not only to the Thai people but also to its promising neighbourhood.

— Financial Times

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.