Monday, January 23, 2012

Thailand’s politics hamstrings economic progress

While Thai politics has long been unruly, it has rarely been so unsettled and intractable as in 2011.

Thailand has entered 2012 bruised and battered, even compared to previous bouts of political instability. This year will see more of the polarisation and conflict that have underpinned the Thai landscape since a 2006 military coup deposed Thaksin Shinawatra. But Thailand’s focus will increasingly shift from Thaksin’s glaring defects to the exposure of his adversaries’ deficiencies and shortcomings. Paramount among the structural issues here will be the untenable hegemony of Thailand’s monarchy-centred socio-political hierarchy in the late twilight of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign. Political manoeuvring and machinations will characterise this contested, overarching superstructure in search of a new balance.

To be sure, the past year was not set up to be another annus horribilis for Thailand. But after former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called an early election in May, voters on 3 July overwhelmingly returned Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to power. Soon after taking office, Yingluck’s government went into a tailspin as central Thailand was gripped by its worst floods in years. Structural problems from decades of neglect and poor development plans were compounded by bureaucratic ineptitude and government mismanagement. But while her government was weakened by the floods, Prime Minister Yingluck emerged more intact than anticipated.

After the floods, a stalemate between Thailand’s competing political forces seems to have taken hold. The Yingluck government is upholding the sanctity of the monarchy through repression and crackdowns on dissent and freedom of expression. And unsurprisingly, Article 12 of the Criminal Code — the lèse-majesté law — and its related Computer Crimes Act have been enforced with growing frequency. In return, the government is able to rule without debilitating street protests from yellow-clad and multi-coloured royalist groups or coup threats from the army. The Yingluck government does not have the wherewithal to amend or challenge these laws head on. Nor can Thailand’s establishment muster enough strength to initiate more rounds of party dissolutions and changes of government — let alone a military coup.

The stalemate will encourage various interest and advocacy groups to air their grievances and clamour to get their way. Chief among them this year will be Thaksin’s manoeuvres to return home. He has won four consecutive Thai elections over the past decade, but has also left a trail of liabilities — corruption convictions, conflicts of interest and human rights violations — which will hamper any future ambition to rule. Yet he lurks and rules from abroad. Whether Thaksin comes back this year will depend on his patience and his opponents’ willingness to make a deal, although there may now be too much bad blood for any lasting deal to take place. At the same time, that Thaksin could return in simple defiance should not be dismissed. It would lead to a showdown but could also accelerate Thailand’s endgame.

His former loyalists in the Thai Rak Thai Party (which the judiciary dissolved in May 2007) will be eligible to retake political office after May 2012. Whatever talent Thai politicians have to offer, much of it was systematically banned for the past five years. The 111 former Thai Rak Thai MPs are likely to provide a broad boost to the Yingluck government as they re-enter the political fray, notwithstanding any potential intra-Pheu Thai squabbling.

The charter-change movement is likely to gather steam in 2012. As the pro-coup forces introduced the current constitution back in 2007, the document is essentially anti-politician and anti-political parties. A self-respecting democracy that ensures justice and equality can hardly grow out of it. Any changes to the charter will be mired in acrimony though, and could be a flashpoint of renewed conflict if taken too far.

Thailand’s polarisation is now between traditional monarchists and electoral democrats, with substantial overlap between them. The monarchists do not reject elections and democratic rule as long as it privileges the monarchy-centred hierarchy as a linchpin of Thai society. Most democrats are supportive of the monarchy but they want their votes to count and reject the undemocratic interventions by royalist groups and judicial institutions since the coup.

But the ideals of monarchy are stronger among the democrats than those of democracy are among the monarchists. Changing times ushered in by the end of the Cold War — which was instrumental in fostering Thailand’s monarchy-military dominance — new media technologies, younger generations, and international norms around democracy and human rights are putting pressure on Thailand’s hierarchy to adjust.

Still, any new order could be even more unwieldy and unstable. If the incumbency has to go, there are no guarantees that any replacement will not be worse. The best outcome would be for the incumbency to adapt while in a position of strength rather than having to change when its hand is weaker. This year, like those that preceded it, offers yet another opportunity for such adjustments. Whether monarchists and democrats can find a way forward will determine if Thailand can get out of its holding pattern, which has hamstrung its foreign policy and economic growth.

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak Professor and Director at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
This article is part of a special feature: 2011 in review and the year ahead. East Asia Forum

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