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No Sign of Compromise in Thailand’s Deepening Political Crisis

May 14, 2014

A turbulent last 10 days in Thailand’s protracted political crisis has left its embattled political leaders no closer to a compromise solution. Emboldened by the Constitutional Court’s decision last week to remove former Pheu Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and nine members of her Cabinet from office for alleged impropriety in the appointment of a senior security official, the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by former Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, has vowed to wage yet another final battle to topple the caretaker government and install a non-elected People’s Council.

Bangkok shutdown

Thais take to the streets during the “Bangkok Shutdown” campaign earlier this year. Photo/Flickr user drburtoni http://bit.ly/REHBbZ

To this end, Mr. Suthep has called on the presidents of the highest courts, the chairman of the Election Commission, and the newly appointed speaker of the Senate to collectively nominate an interim government for royal endorsement under Section 7 of the Constitution, adding that he will to do so himself if state agencies fail to act.

While the government and leaders of the pro-government Red-Shirt movement were resigned to the fact that the Constitutional Court would remove Ms. Yingluck, steeled expectation did little to contain their outrage when the decision was handed down. Within hours of the Constitutional Court decision, the remaining members of the Pheu Thai Cabinet appointed Deputy Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan as acting interim prime minister. Mr. Niwatthamrong has reiterated the government’s intention to hold a fresh election on July 20. In the meantime, angry Red-Shirt activists have gathered in the western suburbs of Bangkok, prudently avoiding clashes with PDRC demonstrators by staging protests in locations removed from the latter’s camps, but threatening to march on the capital if the Senate or other authorities take any steps to replace the caretaker government. Rival political demonstrations that began with a festive atmosphere have assumed a sinister edge as the political stakes rise.

The opposition Democrat Party has declared that it will not contest the election under the present circumstances, consistent with its position in the nullified February 2 election. Last week, party leader and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva stirred a brief flurry of hope in intimating that a compromise must be reached so that the election can proceed in the spirit of democracy. The roadmap for “reform before elections” that he subsequently unveiled was immediately rejected by the caretaker government, which decried the Abhisit proposal as little more than a variation on the PDRC call for an unelected People’s Council to replace electoral democracy through an imprecisely defined period of reform.

A foreign journalist asked me earlier this week whether Thailand had reached its most serious state of political crisis ever. While the heated rhetoric and intractable stances of rival political factions could well contribute to a feeling of this kind, the arsenal of weapons wielded by anti-government factions also kindles a grim sense of déjà vu. Their weapons of choice include noisy street protests and a disruption of life and commerce in the capital that few elected governments in the world would tolerate for hours, let alone weeks on end, together with legal challenges brought before the courts and independent agencies accusing Pheu Thai leaders with violations of the Constitution and corruption. Although the actions referred to watchdog review have reflected remarkable lapses of judgment on the part of government, most would be better understood as ill-conceived policy adventures than as fundamental breaches of law or political integrity sufficient to threaten an elected government. Few would dispute the value of reasonable checks on legislative authority, and all political parties have at times pressed their interests before the courts, yet the practice of challenging elected governments in this manner has been decidedly one-sided of late. Courts that rejected similar cases brought by parties loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra during their time in opposition are prepared to accept cases against the Shinawatra family and Pheu Thai government.

Some faint rays of light pierce the cloud of negative developments. The heads of judicial bodies and other agencies whom Mr. Suthep has pressed to topple the caretaker government are seemingly mindful of the risks and uncertainty inherent in invoking Section 7 of the Constitution. The Constitutional Court was prepared to remove Ms. Yingluck and those involved in the transfer action, but sensibly stopped short of removing the entire Cabinet. The Democrats periodically signal their understanding of the fine line treaded in their alliance with PDRC, balancing practical expediency with the backfire risk of siding too closely with Mr. Suthep and his legions. To their credit, senior military leaders have repeatedly rejected anti-government calls to intervene by staging a coup. In earlier political crises of this kind, the military would arguably have intervened long before this present juncture. Still smarting from the military’s last intervention in politics in 2006-07, when their predecessors drew international criticism and rattled fault lines within the political demographic of the military ranks, senior military leaders insist that they will leave the crisis to be settled by political actors. The military has stuck to its self-styled mediating role, joining others in appealing to the warring political factions to reach a compromise that will defuse tensions and avert a deepening economic crisis. One hopes that military leaders will stick to this position, and would intervene only to ensure public order and security in the event of serious violence, and not to remove a government.

What stands between the present crisis and fully contested democratic election?

From the perspective of the bar set by PDRC, it would seem that nothing short of wholesale suspension of electoral democracy and the assumption of political authority by stewards drawn from the old elite will suffice. Mr. Suthep insists that a non-elected People’s Council can be trusted to guide Thailand through future transitions that the conservative elite of which he is a member are loathe to entrust to elected political rivals. Per the slightly lower bar set by the Democrats, a contested election is seemingly conditional on pre-election reform measures that would buy time until they are confident enough to contest an election. From the proposal floated by Mr. Abhisit, it is not clear what combination of reforms might suffice. Neither is it clear that practical reform measures such as decentralization, electoral reform, or stiffer anti-corruption measures, important as they are in the long-term, genuinely figure in a power struggle that seems to turn more on confidence in electoral victory or apprehension of inevitable loss.

Within days after the Pheu Thai government floated the blanket Amnesty Bill six months ago, the bill was sunk by the weight of public outrage, with the staunchest opponents of Mr. Thaksin and elements of his traditional Red-Shirt support base united in common frustration. Red-Shirts were incensed that the Amnesty Bill would slam the door shut on the prospect of those responsible for the deaths of Red-Shirt demonstrators in the tragic final days of the May 2010 political demonstrations in Bangkok being brought to justice. At that heady moment, one felt an exhilarating sense that Thai democracy had come of age in accommodating shared views and common purpose across partisan political lines, with the Senate decisively rejecting the draft bill. One hopes that those who hold the strongest cards will play them wisely and well in averting violence, avoiding economic recession, and resisting efforts to set the country back a decade by futilely prolonging the inevitable course to a new political settlement that reflects the political and economic realities of contemporary Thailand.

There are arguably many concessions that Pheu Thai party and the Shinawatra family could extend by way of compromise without undermining their security at election time, among them an articulate reform vision, greater transparency and consultation in the exercise of even the strongest electoral mandate, or the prospect of Ms. Yingluck or other family members stepping out of the leadership spotlight to create space for new faces. For the opposition Democrats, the toughest compromises involve reforming the party and earning the confidence of voters in regions beyond their traditional power bases. Through a succession of elections, Pheu Thai has been rewarded at the polls for making the politically savvy and economically empowered electorate of the North and Northeast regions feel respected, valued, and understood. No political loyalties are permanent, and there is nothing to prevent the Democrats from patiently pursuing the national support base needed to secure a future election victory.

Thailand has experimented with many forms of governance, none of which have served it better than democratic elections. One hopes that the divided factions will reach a compromise solution that secures the participation of all major political parties in the next election – ideally on the strength of reform obligations, campaign platforms that articulate compelling policy and reform visions, and acknowledgment that the reforms on which a new political settlement will rest involve core institutions of governance and patient commitment to a long and inherently messy process of change.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand and can be reached at kim.mcquay@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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