Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Do or Die for Thai Democracy

BANGKOK - Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has raised hopes that early elections will reconcile bitterly opposed political camps and steer the country's protest-plagued politics towards more stability. Despite a six-month period of relative political calm, it's not clear yet that powerful players - including the armed forces, royal palace and self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra - will honor a democratic result that goes against their interests.

Abhisit is expected to dissolve parliament in early May, paving the way for polls by either late June or early July. Preliminary opinion polls show a neck-and-neck race, though no party is expected to win an outright majority and would likely require smaller coalition partners to form a government. A national unity government consisting of Abhisit's Democrats and the opposition Puea Thai is viewed as the most unlikely of electoral outcomes. Thailand has returned from the brink of last year's street protests, grenade attacks, anonymous bombings, military-style assassinations, arson attacks and fatal armed clashes. Clashes between pro-Thaksin United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protesters and government troops resulted in 91 deaths, among them most were "red shirt" wearing civilians. Both sides have blamed the other for instigating the death and destruction. To date, the government and armed forces have declined to take responsibility for any of the fatalities.

The calm before the proposed polls is the result of a behind-the-scenes accommodation reached late last year between Abhisit's government and the royal Privy Council on one side and Thaksin's camp on the other, according to a government aide with regular access to the premier. The first aspects of the multi-faceted deal were brokered in October, around the same time international mediators met with top Thaksin associates and government officials in Bangkok, according to the same insider. The exact contours of the accommodation are unclear, and its not immediately certain that the international mediation effort, including interlocutions by a former top United States diplomat, were instrumental in the deal. But soon after high-level meetings between known Thaksin allies and international mediators, the string of anonymous bombings across Bangkok and
surrounding areas came to an unexplained halt last October.

The bomb attacks commenced soon after a February 2010 Thai court decision to seize US$1.4 billion of $2.3 billion of Thaksin's personal assets on corruption-related charges during his tenure as premier. Based on analysis of the targets hit, several diplomats and analysts interpreted the bombings as part of a campaign of instability to maintain Thaksin's negotiating leverage vis-a-vis the government. Thaksin and his top lieutenants have denied responsibility for the attacks, while UDD leaders have consistently blamed them on unnamed dark forces in the military. At around the time the bombings stopped, the government pulled back its previous vigorous pursuit of Thaksin's extradition from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the former premier has resided since fleeing a two-year jail term handed down by a Thai court in August 2008.

Near the end of last year, Abhisit's government also allowed Thaksin to repatriate a portion of the US$900 million that was not seized in last February's landmark court decision, according to the insider familiar with the situation. The Ministry of Finance would neither confirm nor deny that Thaksin was allowed access to the funds.

Comparatively tame

At the same time, the UDD's post-crackdown rallies in Bangkok have been comparatively tame and highly circumscribed, with events held around once a month and only until dark on weekends under the new leadership of Thida Thavornseth. Abhisit and Thida held what was billed as an impromptu meeting at a Bangkok hotel in mid-December that in retrospect hinted at the wider accommodation that had already been reached. In late February, seven UDD leaders were released on bail and have since been allowed to continue moderated protest activities. Since then, other UDD leaders who fled to Cambodia after last May's crackdown have been allowed to return to Thailand immune from arrest. A group of 12 UDD guards believed to be among the protest group's armed wing were also released and have since been seen providing security at a recent UDD rally in Udon Thani province, a Thaksin and UDD stronghold.

In an apparent concession to government demands, the UDD announced from its protest stage last month that it would not tolerate any protesters involved in disseminating anti-monarchy messages from its rally site. Marking a significant turn on the group's known republican element, at least one protester was apprehended by UDD guards and handed over to authorities that same day, according to a source familiar with the situation. Last September, a UDD rally held while civil society activist Sombat Boonngam-anong was the group's de facto leader, saw several protesters scribble anti-royal graffiti on the walls of a construction barrier built around the Central shopping mall that was torched along with over 30 other buildings in apparent response to the military's May 19 crackdown. Soon thereafter, in what one UDD insider referred to as a "silent coup" inside the UDD, Thida assumed the group's leadership role and Sombat has since faded into obscurity.

More significantly, perhaps, officials have refrained from arresting four former top soldiers loyal to Thaksin who they believe commandeered a "war room" that orchestrated much of the protest-related violence. Abhisit told Asia Times Online that police were investigating the four, who include a senior army officer who was tipped to become army commander under Thaksin but was demoted after the 2006 coup and another with well-known ties to military mafia. The common thread through the broader accommodation is a commitment by both sides to settle their substantial differences through elections rather than more conflict and violence, according to the insider. Consistent with those terms, he notes that Thaksin has dedicated his recent phone-in rhetoric to galvanizing Puea Thai to compete at the polls rather than stoking the UDD to rise up and topple the government, as he has previously.

Thaksin's interventions, including a drawn-out waiting game over who he will anoint to lead Puea Thai at the polls, have split the party into competing camps that some analysts estimate threaten substantial pre-election defections. Increasingly it seems Thaksin will pick his political novice sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, over his former commerce minister Mingkwan Sangsuwan in a bid to maintain tighter control over the party and its agenda, including a push for amnesty and his return to Thailand.

Former Thaksin spokesman and justice minister Pongthep Thepkanchana recently told reporters that Puea Thai's internal polling shows it would win 30 more seats than the Democrats, though it was unclear by that estimate whether the party would win the majority needed to form a one-party government. Independent polls show Puea Thai will likely sweep the populous northeastern region, split the north and central regions with the Democrats and other parties, and make new inroads in Bangkok.
Korbsak Sabhavasu, the Democrat's top election strategist, predicts his party will fare better than it did in 2007, when it placed second to the Puea Thai's Thaksin-aligned predecessor, the People's Power Party. He believes the Puea Thai's leadership crisis has worked to the Democrat's and Abhisit's electoral advantage.

Recent electoral amendments that call for more party list and fewer constituency parliamentarians and ongoing gerrymandering are also expected to benefit Democrat candidates, he said. The party is riding a high economic tide, with gross domestic product growth bouncing from -2.3% in 2009 to 7.8% last year - though rising inflation in recent months has taken much of the shine off that credential. Korbsak believes that the government's pro-poor policies, including a rice price support scheme for farmers, monthly payments to the elderly and a raft of price caps and subsidies, will dull the appeal of Thaksin's past populist offerings and win his party more grass-roots support.

Agony of defeat

With a widely anticipated tight race, the bigger question surrounds whether the losing side will accept defeat and allow the rival party to freely form the next government. It is significant in this regard, say people familiar with the situation, that the military was not an active participant in the reconciliation-through-elections deal reached by Thaksin's camp and Abhisit's government late last year. Army commander and palace favorite General Prayuth Chan-ocha has said that he supports the polls and would willingly step down if a Puea Thai government wished to relieve him of his duty. A Puea Thai-led administration, particularly one led by Thaksin's sister, would likely launch new investigations into Prayuth's and Abhisit's alleged roles in the killings last year of scores of UDD protesters.

Despite Prayuth's public assurances, that scenario has raised concerns that the military could have an interest in subverting the polls, particularly if it became apparent in the run-up to the result that Puea Thai was poised to notch a convincing win. An internal poll conducted in recent weeks by the military's secretive Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) showed Puea Thai outpacing the Democrats by around 10 seats, according to a source who saw the poll. Soldiers have historically guaranteed the security of Thai elections but in the current political context troops at polling stations could become easy targets for allegations - contrived or legitimate - of vote-rigging and voter intimidation. The risk of an election meltdown was raised last week when the government rejected on nationalistic grounds a proposal to deploy international election monitors to put an independent eye on the voting.

Puea Thai is cobbling together its own election monitoring units to determine from its perspective whether expected tight races are held and tallied without irregularities. Thaksin ally Pongthep recently told reporters that "disaster" would strike if the polls were stacked against Puea Thai candidates and that the UDD "would not stand for" any military intervention in the next government's formation.

Independent observers have expressed concerns that ISOC may have co-opted or even created its own red shirt-wearing groups who could be mobilized to sabotage the polls in pro-Thaksin guise. In a recent research presentation in Bangkok, Harvard PhD anthropology candidate Claudio Sopranzetti noted that ISOC now pays the office rent for a nominally pro-UDD association of motorcycle taxi-drivers.

Others see the potential for a military-backed "administrative coup" where a sudden dissolution of the Election Commission (EC), whose members have expressed reservations about their ability to manage the polls, creates a procedural vacuum that would require a Constitutional Court ruling before elections could be held. If the EC's dissolution came after parliament was dissolved, it would theoretically allow for the creation of an appointed caretaker government until the legal case was resolved. Any case scenario where the elections or pre-election period descend into chaos could provide an opening for the military to seize power and suspend democracy indefinitely under an appointed administration. That would be consistent with the "yellow shirt"-wearing People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest group's recent rally cries for a three to five year "reset" of the political order under an appointed government. That time period, some suggest, speaks to the looming royal succession and royalists desire for stability to manage the delicate transition.

The PAD, whose rallies paved the way for Thaksin's 2006 military ouster, has failed to galvanize significant numbers during its current crusade against Abhisit's handling of a border dispute with Cambodia. While many analysts have speculated on the PAD's fading relevance, its leaders' recent protest speeches have presaged hardline military positions, including a spike in hostilities with Cambodia and the rejection of allowing Indonesian observers to the contested border area. Whether the PAD could galvanize larger numbers around allegations of a botched election and hence the need for an appointed government is unclear. Opinion polls have consistently shown that another military takeover would be widely unpopular, including among the Bangkok middle class that supported the 2006 putsch. Responding to widespread but unsubstantiated coup rumors, Abhisit recently quipped to foreign journalists that Prayuth has vowed to warn him "in advance" if he planned to overthrow his government before the polls.

Another senior Democrat politician contends that the military top brass is "scared shitless" by any scenario where they would need to govern in light of the abysmal performance of its appointed administration after the 2006 coup. With the hardliner Prayuth now in charge and by some estimates the royal succession at stake, that may or may not be the case.

While Abhisit's early elections have raised hopes democracy can solve the country's deep-seated political problems, it seems just as likely the polls backfire in a decidedly anti-democratic direction. By Shawn W Crispin Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.

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