March 16, 2014
Thailand: Political Impasse Continues

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE snap general elections held in Thailand in February took place without the bloodshed and violence that many had feared. On the eve of the elections, those intent on foiling the electoral process had opened fire on supporters of government who were mobilising to cast their votes. That incident has further undermined the credibility of the opposition which has managed to virtually paralysed Bangkok for the last three months. A popular catchphrase of those supporting the beleaguered government of the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra was: “We wanted ballots but we got bullets.” The Thai prime minister had called for early elections in what now seems as a futile bid to bring the long running political impasse to an end. TRADITIONAL ELITES SEEKING A COMEBACK The Bangkok business elite, having close ties with the Thai royalty, are financing the disruptive activities of the opposition. They have now acknowledged the fact that regime change could never be brought through the ballot box in a fair and free election. The opposition has instead been demanding the replacement of the elected government by an unelected “people’s council.” The opposition wants “reforms” in the electoral system to be first implemented. The ruling party is open to “reforms” but is vehemently against an unconstitutional “people’s council” being set up to replace a government elected with a large majority. The “people’s council,” most Thais believe, is only a facade for the country’s traditional elites consisting of elements aligned to the monarchy, the military and sections of the bureaucracy, to once again control the levers of power in Bangkok. The ruling Pheu Thai Party, despite the all out efforts of the opposition to enforce a poll boycott, ensured that the majority of the polling booths remained open for voting. More than 50 per cent of the eligible voters cast their ballots. But the opposition Democrat Party and the People’s Democrat Reform Committee (PDRC) which it backs, that is mainly based in Bangkok and southern Thailand, were successful in thwarting voters from exercising their franchise in around 10 percent of the polling booths in their areas of influence. Around two million Thais could not exercise their franchise. But even in Bangkok, considered to be an opposition stronghold there was 26 percent voting despite the threats of violence. The PDRC is headed by a former deputy prime minister, Suthep Thausugban belonging to the Democrat Party. Suthep has many criminal charges pending against him, including that of corruption, when he was in government in the beginning of the last decade. According to the constitution of Thailand, a new government can only be formed if there is a quorum of 475 members in parliament. The opposition has successfully prevented this from happening even before the voting started, by preventing the filing of nominations to 28 out of the 500 parliamentary constituencies. The main opposition Democrat Party was quick in petitioning the Constitutional Court to annul the elections and ban the Pheu Thai Party for going ahead with the elections. Thailand’s constitutional ombudsman has rejected the opposition’s call but the Constitutional Court is still to pass a judgement on the validity of the February elections. The Constitutional Court had late last year overturned the parliament’s decision to democratise the Senate (upper house) by having direct elections. In fact, the Constitutional Court has launched criminal proceedings against the legislators of the ruling party who voted for the change. It was the army which after staging a coup in 2006 ordered that half the members of the Senate could be nominated by the judiciary and senior civil servants. The military has traditionally represented the interests of the Bangkok elite and royal court. COUP BEING PLANNED The country’s election commission, which many Thai commentators say is far from neutral, has not announced plans for holding a repoll in the constituencies that were affected by the violent disruptive tactics of the opposition. It could take weeks or even months for a new functioning government to be in place in Thailand. The opposition has also been pleading openly with the Thai army to intervene once again and overthrow the democratically elected government. The army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, said in the second week of February that he is loath to take any unnecessary steps but at the same time refused to endorse the election results. Prayuth along with Suthep, the PDRC leader, had played a key role in the bloody suppression of opposition protestors in 2010. In another statement he made in December, Prayuth said that the decision on a coup d’etat would “depend on the situation.” The government spokesman had said in late January that the opposition has a secret plan “to lure the military into staging a coup.” Recently, Veerapong Ramangoora, a leading Thai economist who has held senior cabinet positions in previous governments, has subscribed to this view. Veerapong, who has been critical of the Shinawatra clan, claimed that there was an “agreement to stage a coup d’état” and instal a former general as the country’s leader. The plan, according to reports, had to be abandoned as most of the present leadership in the military concluded that another intervention would be detrimental to their long term interests. The army leadership is aware that any overt interference this time could have tragic consequences, especially given the fact that the majority of the Thai people are still backing the Pheu Thai Party and its exiled leader, Thaksin Shinawatra. The current prime minister is the younger sister of Thaksin, who was ousted as prime minister in a military coup in 2006. The opposition has been alleging that it is Thaksin, the multi-billionaire businessman, who is actually running the government from his self-imposed exile in Dubai. It was the current prime minister’s efforts to pass an amnesty law that would have allowed her brother to return home that sparked the current unrest. The proposed amnesty law would have absolved Thaksin as well as those responsible for the killing of Thaksin supporters in the bloody events leading to the last military coup in 2010. The Amnesty proposal had angered the “red shirt” supporters of Thaksin, who had borne the brunt of the attacks from the security forces at the time. More than 90 “red shirts” were killed and hundreds injured in the 2010 army crackdown. The opposition supporters who swear their undying loyalty to the monarchy are known as “yellow shirts.” They are the ones currently on the streets of Bangkok. ANOTHER SERIOUS THREAT FOR YINGLUCK GOVERNMENT The judiciary has so far treated those demanding the ouster of the elected government and indulging in violence with kid gloves. Veerapong claims that some senior members of the judiciary are still hoping for a change of government but said that dismissing the government would be deemed an unconstitutional act. In the second week of February, arrest warrants were issued for 19 leaders of the protest movement for violating emergency rule that was proclaimed by the government in early January. Legal experts are of the view that there are no grounds for annulling the elections but these luminaries also note that the country’s Constitutional Court has had a penchant for ruling against the party of Yingluck Shinawatra. The court had annulled the government led by her brother eight years ago and had twice dissolved the parties led by him since then. But there is another serious threat looming for the Pheu Thai government led by Yingluck. The prime minister’s populist “rice purchase” policy under which the government purchased the crop for well above the market price is threatening to unravel. China which had contracted to buy 1.2 million tonnes of rice has now pulled out of the deal citing the ongoing probe by Thailand’s anti-corruption commission into the prime minister’s rice purchase policy as the reason. “China lacks confidence to do business with us after the National Anti-Corruption Commission started investigation into the transparency of rice deals between China and Thailand,” the Thai commerce minister announced. Thailand’s opposition has been claiming that the government’s rice purchase policy is only a subterfuge for buying the votes of poor rural voters. The ruling party has won the last five elections because of the overwhelming support of rural Thai voters, many of them rice farmers. The rice farmers have not been paid for their October harvest yet and now many of them are threatening to join the opposition protests. The Thai government has to urgently find new buyers for the rice stocks to pay the farmers at a time when the international price for the commodity has fallen. The government is unable to raise the finances to pay the farmers as the country’s banking sector has refused to provide bridging loans. The banks are not sure about the legal status of the government given the continuing political uncertainty. “These payment problems stem from the dissolution of parliament, which made it difficult under the framework of the law to approve payments,” Prime Minister Yingluck has explained. REASONS TO WORRY The economic growth forecast for the country has become gloomy in the wake of the turmoil that has paralysed the functioning of government. Ministry buildings, including those of the commerce ministry, have been occupied by the protestors. Even the prime minister’s office was briefly occupied. Tourism, one of the mainstays of the Thai economy, is also beginning to be adversely impacted. Major infrastructural projects worth more than 61 billion dollars focussed on mass transit and high speed rail net work are now in abeyance. According to the Thai Chamber of Commerce, the Bangkok protests are costing the Thai economy up to 30 million dollars a day. There are reasons to fear for the future of Thailand if the unrest is allowed to continue. The supporters of the ruling party, mainly concentrated in the north and the northeast of the country, are even threatening secession if the mandate of the people is overturned by either the military or the courts. They have long felt discriminated by the Bangkok elite. It was only after Thaksin came to power in 2001 for the first time that they benefited in significant ways. Farmers were given access to micro credits, education and affordable health care. At the same time, Thaksin took care to further expand his wide ranging business interests in the telecom sector along with that of his cronies to the detriment of the old Bangkok based business elites. The present political crisis is also related to the uncertainty regarding the future of the monarchy. King Bhumibol Adulyadej who is 86 has been suffering form a host of old age related heath problems. The king has played an important role in keeping the various ethnic and linguistic groups united. Meanwhile, in the far south of the country, a separatist conflict shows no signs of ebbing. The conflict in the Malay speaking predominantly Muslim region of Thailand escalated in 2004. Nearly 6000 people have been killed and close to 10,000 injured since then. Thaksin had tried to find a military solution to the conflict when he first assumed power. His strong arm tactics backfired and the insurgency only gained strength. The Pheu Thai government led by his sister changed tack and had initiated a dialogue with the separatist group with the help of the Malaysian government. The opposition in Thailand was very critical of the dialogue process with the rebels. The Democrat Party leader and former prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, accused the PheuThai party of encouraging separatism. Thai politics has entered uncharted political territory in 2014. The country stands at the edge of an abyss.