Thursday, January 16, 2014

Thailand's political crisis - Like two countries

IN THAILAND, governments are made in the provinces and unmade in the capital. The unmaking part has always come relatively easy. Five weeks ago, mass protests in Bangkok against the government forced the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to call an early election. Her Pheu Thai party, which is the third incarnation of a party founded by her brother, the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was prepared to win it. And so the protesters, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister of the opposition Democrat Party, returned to the streets on January 13th. They are now demanding that the very process by which Thailand (usually) chooses its governments—ie elections—be junked

The poll called by Ms Yingluck is still scheduled to happen on February 2nd. But it is looking unlikely to go ahead. For a start, the Election Commission does not want to hold it on that date. Then the pro-royalist Democrat Party is boycotting it—not because it would be unfair (though it might be), but because it would lose. Mr Suthep instead wants to give a “people’s council” of “good men” 18 months to run Thailand, time for them to implement a fuzzy reform agenda whose main objective is to rid the government of the whole Shinawatra family. As it stands Ms Yingluck holds the first position on Pheu Thai’s candidate list, followed by her brother-in-law, in the second spot, and then her cousin, the current foreign minister, in fourth place.

The government actually has offered to delay the poll, but only if Mr Suthep calls off his campaign. But he seems to have foresworn negotiating and this week he boasted that he has enough cash to fight the “Thaksin regime”, as he calls it, for a year. Mr Suthep also called for the prime minister herself to be “detained”. The rhetoric from the protesters’ podiums at the capital’s main intersections is getting nastier. From one, a speaker, a university professor, called for the sexual assault of Ms Yingluck.

The government’s strategy has been to back off and wait for Mr Suthep’s tantrum to end. It has become hard to envision a compromise. For Mr Suthep’s followers another government voted in by rural voters from the north and north-east (whom they often call “water buffaloes”) would be intolerable. Equally intolerable, to Ms Yingluck’s supporters, would be the unelected return of the Democrats, whose political enemies tend to call them “cockroaches”.

Ms Yingluck must fear that violence in the streets might trigger a coup. The pressure has been mounting. On the day before the anti-government protesters began this most recent phase of their drawn-out campaign to shut down Bangkok and force out the Shinawatras, Ms Yingluck was reported to be mulling resignation. The story goes that it was her brother Thaksin who talked her out of it, over a Skype call from his refuge in Dubai.

The Shinawatras may be loathed by the traditional elite (and millions more, who hope someday to join it) for treating the state as an open till, but they still hold the cards. Paralysing a city the size of Bangkok is an impressive feat, requiring great numbers. But there were probably at least as many pro-government supporters out and about in the provinces. They are calling for the government to go ahead with the election as it was planned. Thida Thavornseth of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) says she has asked her supporters to refrain from wearing the red shirts that have become their symbol. Her goal is to avoid violent conflict, but she warns that the UDD would resist a coup.

Postponing the elections, which is probably unavoidable, will open a bundle of legal questions. Most crucially, it might be that in the case of a delayed election the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has the authority to appoint an interim prime minister. This is a scenario Ms Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party is keen to avoid. To her red-shirted supporters it would be as intolerable as a military coup. One part of the army sides with the provinces: these are the “watermelons”, green on the outside, red on the inside. It is with a view to this division that some news agencies have taken to murmuring about the possibility of a civil war.

It seems that only the king will be capable of shutting down Mr Suthep. But the 86-year-old monarch’s vigour is fading, and so too is the role of the palace. It has at times provided an anchor for Thailand’s frail democracy. But the hope that a proper system of checks and balances would evolve in its shadow has been dashed in recent years. The establishment, led by the monarchist Democrats, regards the red-shirt movement as an unwashed rabble in the sway of Mr Thaksin. In fact they are a broad-based response to a broken political system.

Mr Suthep may or may not achieve his objective. He is likely to be ruined either way. If he wins, and imposes a parallel government, he could well be assassinated. If he loses, he will be charged with treason, and could hang. The Democrats do not have a discernible strategy. For now, the party is along for a ride hoping that the next government will be formed by some means of selection other than a legitimate election.

For instance, large numbers of Pheu Thai politicians could be banned from standing for office. The anti-corruption commission is pressing charges against 308 former MPs and senators, most of them from the Pheu Thai party, for voting to make the upper house fully elected (a court had ruled in November that such a change would be unconstitutional). But at this point the chatter of a judicial coup is meaningless. There is at present no parliament at all, such as might be closed down or filled by new elections. More likely, delaying the vote would give Pheu Thai the chance to adjust to any adverse finding from the commission by naming new candidates for office.

Until the next royal succession, the current political conflict is likely to ebb and flow, but not to be resolved. The inevitability of a successor coming along relatively soon makes the prospect of a coup unattractive for the army. To stage a coup and then back an appointed government, as the army did in 2006, would only be safe for as long as the current king is alive. The day the crown prince accedes to the throne he could oust the coupmakers and appoint his own lot of generals. So unless protesters shut down airports or disable crucial infrastructure the army will stay put. It must also fear a backlash by the red shirts and however many enlisted men and officers are loyal to them.

The irony has probably not escaped the generals. If Mr Suthep is successful he will probably hasten the decline of the very thing that he claims to want to protect—the monarchy.
‘The Economist’

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