Ballots, Bullets, and Bizarreness

Dispatches From The Edge

March 17, 2006

Some elections to keep an eye on.

Last month’s massive demonstrations in Bangkok demanding the resignation of Thailand’s Prime Minister, Thanksin Shinawatra, focused on the media mogul’s avoidance of $100 million in taxes. But underlying the charges of corruption is a growing allergy to Thanksin’s heavy-handed approach to any opposition, a result of his scorched earth policy toward Muslims in the country’s southern provinces.

In an effort to derail the uproar over his taxes, Thanksin called a snap election for April 2.

But the largely urban and middle-class opposition is less concerned with Thailand’s endemic government corruption than it is with a series of emergency laws aimed at the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, which abut the border with Malaya. The law allows the government to ban publications, impose curfews, tap phones and detain suspects without a warrant

“This kind of law is a Pandora’s Box,” says Sunai Phasuk, a political analyst associated with Human Rights Watch, “Once you open it, all the nasty things will come out. This law provides the government with a blank check, which is pretty alarming.

Thanksin has silenced critics by filing defamation suits, and buying up media outlets. He says the media must serve the “national interest” and not report “bad news.”

Southern Thailand is “bad news,” and it’s getting worse. The area is mostly Muslim and ethnically Malay, unlike the Buddhist and ethnically Thai center and north. The three provinces, formally the Sultanate of Pattani, were annexed by Thailand—then Siam—in 1909 in a deal cut with the British.

The fact that the south is vastly poorer than the rest of the country has fueled resentment in the three provinces, anger that exploded in April 2004 when a group of Muslims, mostly armed with knives and machetes, attacked several Thai police stations. The government responded with fury, killing over 100 local Muslims, including 32 people who had taken refuge inside the 16th Century Kru Se Mosque.

The following October, the government savagely attacked a demonstration with water cannons and live ammunition, arresting over 1,300 people. The demonstrators were piled on top of one another for a five-hour drive, at the end of which 78 of them had suffocated.

Thanksin said the deaths were a result of the Muslim holy month, Ramadan. “This is typical. It’s about bodies made weak from fasting. Nobody hurt them,” he said.

The Prime Minister has poured 35,000 troops into the provinces, and threatens to cut aid to the impoverished region. According to Amnesty International, the military and local police are guilty of “arbitrary detentions, torture, and excessive lethal force.” The United Nations says the Thai government is violating an international treaty on civil and political rights. The ongoing tension has strained relations with Thailand’s neighbors as well.

Some of Thanksin’s behavior has been simply bizarre. In an effort to encourage “peace,” the military dropped 100 million origami paper cranes over the provinces. But since victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki invented the origami as an act of forgiveness, the crane drop suggested that the Muslims were the ones who needed forgiveness. Needless to say, it was not well received.

At this point the opposition says it will boycott the April 2 vote because they say it is impossible to have a fair contest during a state of emergency. Under Thai election rules that could invalidate the election. In the meantime, the repression in the south continues. It is a tactic, argues an editorial in the Financial Times, “that does not work for Israel in the occupied territories or for the U.S. forces in Iraq, and it will not work for Buddhist Thailand in the country’s predominantly Muslim southern provinces.”

Consider the train wreck that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has engineered going into the April 9-10 national elections:

  • The Prime Minster may be facing his ninth indictment for corruption and bribery. He has been convicted three times on similar charges, but managed to pass legislation in the Italian parliament that allowed him avoid any punishment.
  • The Italian economy, according to Mario Draghi, governor of the Central Bank, “has run aground—gross domestic product did not grow, our products lost even more world market share, and the budget deficit increased.”
  • His reform minister from the racist and xenophobic Northern League was forced to resign for wearing a t-shirt embossed with cartoons insulting Mohammad, and his health minister resigned because he was caught wire tapping political opponents.

Should be a slam-dunk for the center-left L’Unione coalition, right? Not when Berlusconi owns controlling stakes in three of the biggest private TV stations and, as Prime Minister, can decide what happens in the three owned by the state.

For example, he got blanket media coverage when he pledged to abstain from all sex until after the election. On the same day L’Unione’s unveiled its economic program, he stole the limelight by comparing himself to Jesus Christ. He managed to get round the clock coverage when President Bush lent him a hand by inviting him to address a joint session of Congress.

Using this combination of showmanship and raw financial power, he is keeping the race close. The most recent poll (before his latest legal difficulties) indicates the gap between his center-right coalition and L’Unione has closed from 6 percent to 4 percent.

In the end, Berlusconi’s antics may all come to naught. Even with the current poll numbers, L’Unione is still on track to build a wide margin in the lower house (340 to 277) and narrowly take the senate (158-151). And his new legal difficulties may widen the gap. But with a friend in the White House and almost unlimited media power, this one isn’t going to be over until it’s over.

Israel’s March 28 elections looked like they were going to be a victory lap for Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party, but with his lackluster successor, Ehud Olmert, in charge, polls indicate a fall from a projected 44 seats to only 37 in the 120-member Knesset. Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud has picked up one of those seats for a projected total of 15. Labor is at 19 seats, the number two position. But it looks like some of the former Kadima votes will go to small parties that range from extremely reactionary to Left.

One newcomer is the Green Leaf Party, which is dovish on the Palestinian issue and advocates legalization of marijuana, gambling and prostitution. It may take two seats.

Netanyahu has ruled out a coalition with Kadima, and talk is of a Kadima/ Labor government. Olmert, however, says he will not negotiate with the Palestinians, which is nothing new. The Israeli government has refused to talk with the Palestinians since 2001. Labor’s Amir Peretz, on the other hand, recently met with the Palestinian Authority.

With the exception of a few small left and Israeli Arab parties, none of the major parties has presented a peace plan that is likely to get much traction with the Palestinians, although at least Labor is willing to negotiate matters. However, until a majority of Israelis elect a government that will evacuate all the settlements, share Jerusalem, and equitably resolve the refugee question, peace will remain a long way off.

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