Insights and Analysis

In Thailand: Back to Square One or Worse?

December 3, 2008

By John J. Brandon

For one week, a group of anti-government protestors, known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), occupied Thailand’s two major airports in Bangkok. The PAD’s major demand was for Prime Minister Somchai Wonsawat and his cabinet to resign. The taking over of the airport wreaked havoc for over 100,000 passengers trying to leave the country — not to mention the thousands of others, be they Thais or foreigners, who were trying to fly into Thailand. 

The airport closings have come at a huge economic cost.  The Federation of Thai Industries estimates that the country lost $85 million per day in lost revenue. With people cancelling their bookings at the height of the nation’s tourist season, Thailand stands to lose as much as $4 billion in tourism revenue and 1.5 percent in economic growth in 2009.  The protests, coupled with the global financial crisis, may halve tourism arrivals (from 14 million to 7 million), leading to a loss of possibly 1 million jobs.

But what PAD could not accomplish with drawn-out days of protests, Thailand’s Constitutional Court did quickly, yesterday.  On Tuesday, December 2nd, the court issued a ruling to dissolve the People’s Power Party (PPP) and two other parties in the governing coalition, declaring the parties and its leaders had engaged in electoral fraud in December 2007 when the PPP came to power.  The court ruled that the PPP be disbanded and that Prime Minister Somchai and other executive members of the PPP be barred from politics for five years. However, loopholes have enabled non-executive members of the PPP and the other dissolved parties to form a new party under a new name, the Puea Thai. Moreover, the constitution does not force the government to dissolve the new parliament, so there will, in fact, be no new government, just a realignment of the current one.

When the Constitutional Court rendered its decision, the PAD elected to end its protests and vacate Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports.  The airports will reopen for business on December 4th.  But political uncertainty in Thailand remains.  Political friction between the PAD and government supporters has not diminished.  Fresh elections would result in another win for the Puea Thai, formerly the PPP, and initially the Thai-Rak-Thai party founded by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is currently in exile after being found guilty on charges of abuse of power. While reviled by the PAD, Thaksin commands strong support from farmers because of his populist policies targeting poverty reduction in rural areas.  And although he is in exile, many Thais in rural areas still believe Thaksin and his followers support their interests best and they resent the government they voted for being ousted by what they believe is a much smaller movement.

In the past, political instability in Thailand was resolved by either a military coup or royal intervention.  But the military’s last attempt at handling the reigns of government, when it deposed Thaksin in September 2006, was ineffectual.  Thailand’s generals are sitting on the sidelines hoping to prevent further damage to the military’s reputation.  King Bhumipol Adulyadev, the nation’s ultimate arbiter in times of crisis, does not seem inclined to intervene.  The King is due to give his annual address to the nation tomorrow, on December 4th, the day before his 81st birthday, which is Thailand’s National Day.  What might he say?  At a minimum, Thais from all sides of the nation’s political equation will be looking for inspiration, if not guidance and direction.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling dissolving the PPP and the King’s birthday have helped abate tension in the capital, but it has not resolved the country’s political impasse.  In this respect, Thailand is back at square one: Prime Minister Somchai is gone, but the government, under a different name, remains in power. In addition, PAD failed in its objective to change the voting system from one-person-one-vote to a system of functional constituencies that would allow 70 percent of the nation’s parliament to be appointed, thereby diluting the weight of the rural majority. Thus, the PAD’s “victory” is likely to be short-lived.

Ultimately, some political realignment is in order. But in the short and medium term Thailand will continue to have weak, ineffective coalition governments that will accomplish little given the country’s highly poisoned political atmosphere.

John Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s Director for International Relations programs. He can be reached in Washington, DC at [email protected].

Related locations: Thailand
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions


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