Leader on test

Print edition : January 16, 2009
in Singapore

A coffin with Abhisit Vejjajivas picture stuck on it set on fire by supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Udon Thani province on December 22. The country is deeply polarised, with the charismatic Thaksin still commanding widespread support.-SUKREE SUKPLANG/REUTERS

THE contrived election of Abhisit Vejjajiva as Thailands Prime Minister can still turn out well for the key South-East Asian state which was heading for a free fall in politics before his emergence centre stage by mid-December 2008. As the countrys youngest Prime Minister, at 44, Abhisits untested assets at the helm are his education in the democratic environment of the West and his suave political style.

However, his biggest liability is the widespread perception within Thailand and in its neighbourhood that he has been hand-picked for this post by the military establishment. Thailands military, known for staging coups almost at will, is seen to be averse to letting civilian politicians rule without interference from, or at least the influence of, leaders in the barracks. This ground reality does place Abhisit in an awkward non-democratic position as he begins his tenure. This is so despite his exposure to Western-style democracy. And, ironically, while he belongs to the Democrat Party, his critics see his election, made possible by defections in the House of Representatives, as anything but democratic in substance.

Surely, the parliamentary vote in Bangkok on December 15, 2008, which catapulted him to power, was widely seen as an exercise in resolving a prolonged crisis over the enduring popular appeal of Thaksin Shinawatra, a leader in absentia. The charismatic Thaksin, whose prime ministerships had huge democratic mandates, has mostly remained in self-imposed exile through a long chain of events that began with his being toppled, while he was on a foreign tour, in a military coup in September 2006.

He briefly returned home after his political proxy, Samak Sundaravej, won the military-organised democracy-restoring general elections in December 2007. For the past several months, though, Thaksins renewed stay abroad as an exile has become particularly controversial following his conviction, in absentia, in a conflict of interest case. He is now seen as a fugitive as well. Nonetheless, he retains immense popularity, especially among the poor rural masses.

It is in this broad context that the anti-Thaksin forces, ranging from the military establishment to large sections of the rich and the elite in Bangkok, have now engineered the election of Abhisit as Prime Minister. He has not had to win a democratic mandate in a general election. Nothing prevents him, of course, from dissolving the House of Representatives, which has only now chosen him as Prime Minister, and seeking an electoral mandate. However, at the time this report is written, Abhisit himself does not prefer such an obvious democratic course as political polarisation runs deep in the country.

Abhisits rise is almost entirely linked to the events during and after the democracy-restoring general elections in 2007. Throughout the preceding military rule, marked by the manipulative politics of the coup-masters in crafting a new Constitution and getting that approved in a referendum under the juntas own rules, Abhisit remained largely a political bystander. In a sense, his self-imposed marginalisation during the military reign can now be seen as a political plus for him. He did not get intimately associated with the coup-masters politics in this post-Thaksin period. However, the general impression is that he was hand-picked as Prime Minister by the very same military establishment, if not also by the very same anti-Thaksin leaders in it. And, thereby hangs a political tale.

Samak, the first post-Thaksin civilian to become Prime Minister in the wake of the 2007 general elections, was unseated in August 2008 by a judicial ruling. He was pronounced guilty of violating the law on conflict of interest. Even after becoming Prime Minister, he continued to present television shows on cooking, his hobby that he put to some effect by preparing meals for his state guests. His participation in the TV shows was not in tune with the relevant law.

Samak was succeeded by another Thaksin-associate, Somchai Wongsawat, who too was judicially unseated within a few weeks. In Somchais case, it was determined that he should be disqualified for any elective office for five years because the Peoples Power Party (PPP), which he and Samak belonged to, qualified for a mandatory dissolution. A key PPP functionary, not Somchai or Samak, was earlier found guilty of malpractice in the 2007 elections. Under the military-crafted and referendum-cleared Constitution, prevalent with full force even after the restoration of democracy, there was no room for any judicial verdict other than the mandatory dissolution of the entire party.

Thaksin Shinawatra. His renewed stay abroad has become particularly controversial following his conviction in absentia.-PHIL NOBLE/REUTERS

The PPP headed the first two post-Thaksin civilian governments but only as the leader of a coalition that stayed intact at the time of Somchai taking over from Samak. The coalition cracked up in the wake of Somchais disqualification, a result of suspected sleight of hand by the military. The PPP recreated itself as the Puea Thai Party (PTP), a new outfit without the disqualified executives of the now-disbanded entity. In the House of Representatives, now politically reconfigured, Abhisit won by riding a wave of defections from the erstwhile allies of the PPP-turned PTP.

For several months of the run-up to this denouement, a motley group of anti-Thaksin activists, banded under the self-styled banner of Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), brought the Samak-Somchai governments to a near-total standstill. PAD activists, led by some former military leaders and a few media figures, occupied the premises of the Government House in Bangkok from August to December 2, 2008, when Somchai was dismissed in a court order.

The crowning achievement of PAD activists was to force a total shutdown of the Bangkok international airport for about a week or so, insisting that all traces of the Thaksinisation of Thai politics should go. The airport shutdown brought enormous hardship to those visiting Thailand on work and holiday, besides damaging the countrys reputation as a foreigner-friendly destination.

The military authorities who were tasked by the PPPs civilian leaders to enforce local emergency decrees in Bangkok on two separate occasions simply resorted to a policy of non-cooperation with Samak and Somchai respectively. How could this happen in a democracy?

Abhisit Vejjajiva (centre) with caretaker Prime Minister Chawarat Chandeerakul (second left) in a staged clean-up of Government House on December 19 in Bangkok. The office complex was seized by anti-government demonstrators on April 26, 2008, and was occupied until the Somchai government was removed by a court ruling.-DAVID LONGSTREATH/AP

The idea of a truly liberal democracy is not championed by a big section of the urban educated class in Thailand. In fact, the emergence of Abhisit is almost entirely due to the sequential crises, including some contrived ones, that the Bangkok elite played a major role in creating or sustaining for over two years. The same Bangkok elite has by and large welcomed, or acquiesced in, the rise of Abhisit, without a definitive popular mandate, as an alternative to Thaksin.

Thaksin still retains enormous charisma, as was evident during his pre-recorded video address to thousands of Thai nationals at a Bangkok stadium on the eve of Abhisits selection by the House of Representatives. The montage of events between the military coup in September 2006 and Abhisits royal endorsement as Prime Minister on December 18, 2008, bears testimony to a deep polarisation in Thai politics and society. Rooting for liberal democracy are the countrys poor masses, whose welfare topped Thaksins agenda in power, notwithstanding the many controversies he ran into on such issues as nepotism, corruption and human rights abuses in his wars on drugs and separatist-terrorism.

The strongest advocates of limited or guided democracy are to be found among the elite. Such democracy is sought to be driven by the presumed prerogative of the military and other professional classes to dictate terms. A litmus test for Abhisit, therefore, is whether he can, with his new-found parliamentary majority, reform the military-crafted Constitution.

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