Fixing Thailand’s broken politics requires the government, the opposition and the monarchy all to change
YET again, anarchy threatens Thailand. Rival crowds of pro- and anti-government protesters have gathered in Bangkok. The (far more numerous) antis have occupied government ministries, prompting the government to extend special security laws across the capital. The government has seen off a no-confidence motion in parliament but its future remains in doubt, in the face of challenges not just on the streets but also in the courts. Violence may return. Blame for the resurgence of the chaos that plagued Thailand in 2006-10 lies with the government, the opposition and the institution to which they both look for their legitimacy—the monarchy.
The government is led formally by Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister, but informally by her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a wealthy tycoon. Deposed in a coup in 2006 and later convicted of abusing his power, Mr Thaksin runs the government by remote control from self-imposed exile in Dubai. Thailand’s social and business elites regard him as corrupt and high-handed, and are appalled by his populist economic policies. But, thanks in large measure to his popularity in the rural north and north-east, Mr Thaksin’s party (its latest incarnation is called Pheu Thai) keeps winning elections—in 2001 and 2005, and (through proxies) in 2007 and 2011.
Until recently Ms Yingluck’s government seemed to have reached an accommodation with the establishment. Then it pushed through the lower house of parliament a sweeping amnesty bill which would have let Mr Thaksin return home, while expunging thousands of other court cases. There was huge opposition to the bill, even among some of Mr Thaksin’s former fans, who thought it went too far. It was thrown out in the Senate. Retreating, Ms Yingluck promised not to revive it.
Encouraged, the opposition pushed its advantage. The partially appointed Senate tends to side with the opposition, so the government has been trying to change the constitution to make it fully elected. On November 20th the constitutional court backed the opposition’s view that the amendment was unconstitutional; it has yet to rule on whether those who voted for it broke Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law.
Like some of its predecessors, the government may thus be finished off by the judiciary. But even after the amnesty fiasco, Ms Yingluck may well win a fresh election. And in the meantime, the two sides’ supporters slug it out on the streets, and Thailand totters.
For this stalemate to end, three changes are needed. First, the opposition—led by the members of the main establishment political party, the Democrats—must abandon its undemocratic tactics. Its leaders want it both ways. They support parliamentary democracy when it produces the “right” result; when it does not, they resort to the streets, the courts or a phone call to army headquarters. That must stop.
Second, Thaksinite governments have to learn that they must use their electoral mandates not just to win the renewed votes of their supporters next time—still less to run government for Mr Thaksin’s ends—but for the good of the country. That includes confronting corruption, ditching crazy policies, such as a price-support scheme for rice, and promoting a better business climate.
Third, the monarchy must stop playing politics and accept the symbolic role the constitution accords it. Two looming events have helped make Thai politics so frenzied. One is the 86th birthday on December 5th of Thailand’s revered king for 67 years, Bhumibol Adulyadej. By tradition, harmony is supposed to prevail on that day. The king will probably be too frail to make his customary birthday speech. His unpopular son, the crown prince, is likely to succeed him. None of this is discussed in Thailand, for it would contravene the lèse-majesté (as this leader now does too).
This pernicious law blocks rational discourse about urgently needed reforms. Thailand’s constitution not only has undemocratic elements, but also gives the central government too much power. That has helped fuel a long-running bloody conflict in the Muslim south. It may yet help spark another, in the Thaksin-supporting north-east. The royal family should give its explicit support to constitutional reform—and first call for an end to lèse-majesté. ‘The Economist’