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Tension around Thailand's ballot box

Publication Date : 30-03-2014


Just about everyone anxious about Thai politics is on edge, practically hanging on to a narrow ledge of a precipice.

As events in recent years have shown, that includes practically everyone in Bangkok and much of the rest of the country.

Anti-government protests started to really get out of hand last month as random shootings and grenade attacks took the lives of innocent bystanders, including children.

With nobody able to resolve the mounting tension and political stalemate, an unwritten agreement dawned that something had to be done.

Even seasoned politicians failed to call, much less engage in, a civil dialogue across the political divide. The pro-Thaksin government and its street detractors were deeply embedded in their respective trenches.

It was then “left to” army leaders to take the initiative, calling a meeting of both sides in a hotel as the serving senior officers all dressed in civilian clothing convened a gathering.

That led to a voluntary withdrawal of the months-long demonstrations into Bangkok’s Lumpini Park early this month, led by former deputy premier and Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban.

It lowered the tension somewhat, although Suthep and his fellow protesters were adamant that it was neither a retreat nor a defeat of their protests.

The stalemate then lingered. Now the tension is back up again and appears likely to remain.

Since last November, Suthep’s protests have pressured Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to quit the Pheu Thai party-led coalition government.

The following month she dissolved Parliament, putting her government into “caretaker” mode. An election was then set for Feb 2.

Yet that was still not a solution. The political opposition, including the protesters, demanded that political reforms be introduced before the election.

For the opposition Democrat party in particular, “reform” would mean the kind of election that they could win. But that was always going to be a tall order.

For government critics generally, reforms would include barring all Shinawatra family members, their lieutenants and assorted cronies from public office. Furthermore, the reforms had to be instituted by an unelected “people’s council”.

The activists thus lapsed into fantasyland. By multiplying their demands, they also ensured that none could be fulfilled.

Since there was neither political will nor administrative effort invested in such reforms, or even anything resembling a compromise, the election came and went amid continued demonstrations.

Suthep and his many foot-soldiers were busy blocking voting venues and even registration centres to prevent candidates from registering. Democracy quickly became a dispensable myth, particularly in the Democrat party.

Under Thai law, an election would become null and void if 5% or more of precincts failed to provide election returns. In the event, more than 5% of constituents could not even register candidates.

The futility of the February election was soon a foregone conclusion. In due course, the Constitution Court ruled to that effect.

That meant Yingluck’s caretaker government had to extend its role beyond its shelf life. It implied the legitimacy of her government was even more in question.

Meanwhile, coup rumours floated enticingly, at times denied and at other times ignored. Thailand’s performance indices dropped all round, particularly in relation to other Asean countries, adding to the tensions and pressures.

Anxieties have risen so high as to produce rumours that the Democrat party would decide, on the final day of its annual assembly on Friday, that it would participate in the election this time.

For many within and outside the party, that was as unlikely as the party winning the election. Since there have been no reforms to enable the party to win, and with much of its constituency among the anti-election protesters, agreeing to another pointless election would simply be self-defeating.

Another rumour making the rounds is that Thaksin, his family members and his associates had agreed to a one-year suspension of their political activity as part of a reform deal.

The question is why would Thaksin, widely believed to be manipulating his sister’s government and who is under the least pressure abroad, agree to such a concession?

Thaksin duly put paid to that rumour by rejecting it altogether. The senseless nature of such rumours indicates the level of desperation of the opposition in general.

To add colour to the overall picture, even Pheu Thai leaders and a former minister under Thaksin have proposed unlikely and outlandish scenarios.

One story has it that Yingluck would be replaced at the next election, or an attempt at an election, by the relative unknown Pongthep Thepkanchana. This was promptly denied by Pheu Thai leaders who remained confident of Yingluck and her popular appeal.

Pongthep also has a major liability as a prime ministerial candidate. As the richest figure at Cabinet level, billionaire Pongthep would automatically provoke questions about personal wealth in the prime minister’s office – again.

Former finance minister Dr Thanong Bidaya, who served under Thaksin until the 2006 coup, has also proposed that the whole Shinawatra family keep away from politics for four years so that meaningful reforms could be instituted.

Dr Thanong may be showing his stuff as an impartial technocrat, but there is no chance of such a suggestion going anywhere. When the Shinawatras are still triumphant enough to refuse a self-imposed moratorium from politics even for one year, why would they agree to a four-year hibernation?

In the ultimate analysis, the reasons for opposing the government in vocal demands for its ouster remain. The absence of any reforms, and even of any intention to reform anything, is also evident.

That only means the protests will continue or even grow. The positions of the government and the opposition are unchanged, meaning that the political stalemate and the administrative paralysis will stay.

In recent days, it has become clear that such scenarios as a one-year moratorium by the Shinawatras originated with Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. If nothing else, it would make the incumbents reject that prospect even more.

Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that Thailand’s fortunes depend not only on what happens within the government or even among the protesters. What is happening within the Democrat party is also a factor.

Towards the end of last year, a barely concealed power struggle for the Democrat party leadership briefly broke out in the open. That was just after it became clear that Abhisit’s faction had defeated that of former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan.

Surin, in his usual diplomatic style, toned down reports of his failed attempt at the party leadership as news about it broke. But differences in style and approach of the party remain just below the surface.

Among the differences is whether to acknowledge the next election enough as to participate in it. That is a tough decision for any Democrat leader, since the party continues to find itself in a virtually no-win situation.

However, the question of competent leadership of the party remains central. The popularity of Abhisit personally, as well as of the party, had been greater than Yingluck’s and Pheu Thai at the start.

But Abhisit and his colleagues let things slip. They failed to capitalise on their lead or even to maintain it.

They had been out-strategised by Thaksin, yet again. Reform for the party’s salvation may well be in its own hands, if only its leaders deign to accept it.


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