Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva (Photo: Irwin Loy)
This Sunday, July 3, voters in Thailand will head to the polls. The country is a key US ally in Southeast Asia, receiving millions a year in military and economic assistance as well as anti-terrorism training. It's also a democratic government in a region that includes Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. But this democracy has had almost as many military coups as national elections. This will be the first election since massive anti-government protests rocked the capital, Bangkok, for three months last year.
Beneath the surface, Thailand remains a deeply divided country, and observers say, the coming election could usher in a period of uncertainty.
On a car speaker, a rock song is broadcast from one of Thailand's newest radio stations. Although it may sound like a typical tune played on Thai radio, it's actually soaked in politics. The song is critical of the government, blaming authorities for stifling freedom of speech. It's a rallying cry of the opposition Red Shirt movement.
And this suburb on the edge of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, is a heartland of support for the Red Shirts.
Supon Fumooncharoeun is an official within the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or UDD, as the Red Shirts are officially known. He said the radio station, which hit the airwaves mid-June, is the ideal way to spread the message.
"Every household has a radio," he said. "It's the best way to reach out to the people and promote the idea of democracy."
At the heart of the music is a distrust that infuses the politics of this deeply divided country. The Red Shirts claim that the country's elite, aided by the military, have repeatedly stolen the government from them and the largely rural power base they say they represent.
The Red Shirts are largely loyal to one man: former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A wealthy businessman, Thaksin rose to power thanks to populist policies, including health-care reforms and farmer subsidies. Those programs endeared him to the rural pool, especially here in the populist north, where Thaksin was born.
But as strong as the support for Thaksin here, so is the level of distrust for him elsewhere. He was deposed in 2006, by the country's powerful military, and now lives in exile after being convicted on corruption charges.
Paul Chambers, the director of research at the Southeast Asian Institute of Global Studies at Chiang Mai's Payap University, said there is "no neutrality to the name Thaksin. You either love the man or you hate him, in Thailand."
"Thaksin Shinawatra was a very popular, populist prime minister who promised to improve the lot of the poor," Chambers said. "Indeed, when he was elected, he did initiate policies to increase the quality of life for poor people."
But some of Thaksin's reforms, including appointing key allies to the military, also angered the country's traditional elite.
Chambers said even though Thaksin is now in exile, he's still front and center in the upcoming election.
After all, Thaksin's own sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is running for prime minister with the Pheu Thai party, backed by the Red Shirts.
"This election is in many ways about the legitimacy of Thaksin," Chambers said, "and about whether he and his family can be brought back into politics."
The seeds of the Red Shirt Movement grew from their frustrations over Thaksin's ouster. Last year, those frustrations erupted into massive demonstrations that saw tens of thousands of protestors descend on Bangkok and occupy the capital for weeks. Those demonstrations turned deadly when authorities used live fire to break up the protests.
In a campaign stop in Red Shirt territory, the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his Democrat Party, steered clear of the topic of last year's bloody crackdown.
Deuntemduang Na-Chiang Mai, a local Democrat candidate, said she wants to look past the protests. "I don't think this should be the main issue for the people of Thailand," she said. "It should be other things too, such as economy right now. Who can run the country well to solve our economy problems?"
But for the Red Shirts' most impassioned believers, the election, and last year's violent repression are impossible to separate.
Supon, the Red Shirt official, plays a grainy video on his cell phone. In it, people can be seen crouched above a motionless figure. He said he shot the video last May in Bangkok's Wat Pathum pagoda, where demonstrators huddled for safety as soldiers moved in to clear out the protesters. Of the more than 90 deaths recorded during the protests, six of them took place at the temple. Supon said when he votes on July 3, he'll be thinking of them.
"It's really difficult to forget," he said. "I saw people get shot in Wat Pathum with my own eyes. I feel for the people whose family members were killed."
For now, Supon said he is hopeful the Pheu Thai party will win. But he is also cautious. Even gaining the most number of seats won't guarantee they'll be allowed to form a government. If the party doesn't win an outright majority, or is unable to convince enough smaller parties to join a coalition, the ruling democrats could take office again.
And if Pheu Thai is barred from forming government, Supon said, the Red Shirts will return to the streets in greater numbers.
But if the party takes office, it's expected they'll push for an amnesty allowing Thaksin to return from exile. That would cause an outcry among the forces opposed to him; and anti-Thaksin demonstrators have been quick to take to the streets in the past.
In a country where politics are literally worn on your sleeve, observers say the July 3 election could mark the beginning of a long period of turmoil.
"Either a pro-Thaksin government or an anti-Thaksin government bodes ill for the future stability in Thailand," Chambers said. "If losers of the election are unable to accept the election results and are wiling to fight in the streets, then that bodes ill for the future of Thai democracy."
Recent polling suggests the Red Shirt-backed Pheu Thai party are ahead going into the election. Whether it will be enough to lead the country after July 3 remains to be seen.