By way of background, in 2001 the billionaire industrialist Thaksin Shinawatra was elected Prime Minister and went on to become the first Thai PM ever to serve a full term. Even more extraordinary, he was elected by a landslide (among allegations of massive vote-buying) to a second term.
He used that mandate to rule with an iron fist and not to bother with the velvet glove -- his anti-drug campaign was just institutionalized brute force, with a shocking number of collateral deaths. On the other hand, he worked effectively to reduce poverty.
In 2006, the Army, at the bidding of the traditional Thai power elite, moved tanks into the streets of Bangkok, and Thaksin was overthrown in a coup. (He was visiting then-president George W. Bush at the time.) He was charged with corruption and with having become (one of my favorite Thai terms) "unusually rich" while in office. He declared his worth when elected at about 15 billion baht, and it was estimated after the coup at 76 billion, although that is, of course, the opposition speaking and he did sell his corporation during that time. He's been persona non grata in Thailand ever since.
After his overthrow, two of his closest associates were elected to fill out his term. Both were deposed, and then some elected members of the legislature were expensively persuaded to change their allegiance, and the current prime minister, the young, attractive, Eton-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva was appointed to the post.
In a country that's not noted for good-looking politicians, this is a real movie-star contest. In a Hollywood film, they'd probably wind up falling in love with each other, jettisoning their corrupt advisers, and starting a third party dedicated to peace and social equality.
But that's not going to happen. The normally placid surface of Thai politics, in which the usual weapon is a silent knife in the back, was shattered last year by the riots between the red shirts (Thaksin's supporters) and Abisit's (the yellow shirts), and the split hasn't even been wallpapered over. This election will (in theory, anyway) determine which of these factions will rule the Kingdom.
And to make things a lot more intense, the woman in the race is Yingluck Shinawatra, a younger sister of the deposed and reviled Thaksin. As if that didn't already have some people anxiously sniffing the air, she's said her first goal as Prime Minister will be reconciliation, which can be read two ways: peace between the factions or an official "welcome back" for Thaksin.
Thaksin, who's never been a shrinking violet, just gave a speech by Skype from his current residence in Dubai, promising to kickstart his anti-drug campaign after his sister is elected and sounding, basically, a lot more like a Prime Minister-to-be than the brother of a Prime Minister-to-be.
And overriding all of this is the potential for violence and the open question -- wide open -- of whether the power elite will allow any of this to happen. I'll be practically sitting on my television beginning July 2, since Thailand is half a day ahead of us.
Oh, and if you want to see Yingluck's facebook page, it's here.