Time of reckoning

Published : Feb 01, 2008 00:00 IST

A Peoples Power Party supporter holding the picture of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at an election rally in Bangkok on December 21.-SAKCHAI LALIT/AP

A Peoples Power Party supporter holding the picture of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at an election rally in Bangkok on December 21.-SAKCHAI LALIT/AP

Deposed leader Thaksin Shinawatras popularity, which became clear in a snap poll, haunts the ruling junta.

A Peoples Power

Military coup-masters, by definition, cannot feel the pulse of the people in the context of any form of democratic process. If Pakistans Pervez Musharraf, idolised by other coup-masters for his long survival, was hit by this reality in early January, Thailands Sonthi Boonyaratglin was also not immune to the shockwaves of peoples will.

Out of genuine desire or bravado, Sonthi, now a retired army chief, had announced his willingness to accept the peoples verdict in a general election to restore democracy which he conducted on December 23. Although he had usurped power in a bloodless move against a twice-elected leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, on September 19, 2006, a number of Thais, especially among the elite, were willing to see his action as a good coup. The contrived logic was that Thaksin had by then become an authoritarian ruler, but the political sentiment among the rural poor, the deposed leaders prime supporters, soared against Sonthi, despite his tight hold over the army.

It is this aspect that came to haunt Sonthi in the wake of the December polls. By the end of the first week of January, he was left with the unenviable task of finding legal means to nullify the peoples will, which, while being a fractured mandate, pointed to Thaksins continuing popularity.

The pro-Thaksin Peoples Power Party (PPP, also known as People Power Party) got more seats than all others in the proposed 480-member Parliament. And Sonthi, by now the powerful Deputy Prime Minister in the military-installed government of Surayud Chulanont, remained determined to prevent a re-Thaksinisation of Thailands polity.

Thus, a legal means of preventing the PPP from forming a coalition government, which could usher in a new democratic order, was to so reduce the partys parliamentary seats as to render it incapable of staking its claim to power. By early January, this indeed was the name of the post-poll game in Thailand and Sonthi and his loyal associates, including Surayud, another former military chief, had spoiled their good coup copybook.

In any case, the Council for National Security (CNS), Sonthis military junta by another name, has never been able to portray itself convincingly as a trailblazer in the art of delivering the goodies of a good coup to the poor rural masses. What the majority of Thais, instead, clamoured for was the restoration and reinvigoration of a Thai-style democracy.

The juntas brains trust has even begun a process of exploring the possibility of nullifying the December 23 elections themselves. It is a different story how the junta can hope to retain credibility even among its staunch supporters if such a decision is taken. After all, one of Thaksins many wrongs, which Sonthi cited to justify his good coup, was the fact that a snap general election held in April 2006 was annulled through a judicial order. Thaksin called that snap poll to ride out a crisis which, in his view, his opponents had been engineering. However, with the countrys opposition parties boycotting that poll, Thaksin came under political siege on a variety of counts, including that of engineering a namesake opposition for the purposes of that election alone.

Coup Leader General

Given this episode of a legal nullification of an entire general election, resorting to a similar solution was not a soft option for Sonthi. If Thaksin was morally and materially responsible for the legal fiasco of the April 2006 snap general elections, a similar argument could easily be raised if Sonthi were to wipe his coup-slate clean of the 2007-end poll exercise.

What then were the sums that alarmed Sonthi and his associates in the immediate wake of the democracy-restoring vote? The junta had organised the December 23 poll. Thaksin, who was at the United Nations when he was toppled, has remained in self-imposed exile.

To this extent, he was not at all on the Thai scene as an organiser of the poll exercise. The juntas discomfiture over his continuing hold over large segments of the Thai masses was a tangible political reality that could not be credibly used in the legal domain to annul the December 23 poll.

If Thaksin might not, for this reason, be blamed for the recent elections which went wrong for the junta, the PPP, which at first count won 233 parliamentary seats, could perhaps be blamed, instead. And, as a period of national mourning over the death of the sister of the constitutional monarch gave the junta a breather in early January, the political focus shifted to the issue of whether and, if so, how the PPP itself could be banned.

The juntas game plan, not a firmed-up strategy by then, was to try and get the PPP disbanded, as if it never had a legal basis to exist ab initio and to campaign and win seats during the December 23 poll.

For the junta, there indeed was a precedent of sorts. The Thai Rak Thai Party, which Thaksin had founded after he entered politics from the corporate world, was disbanded through a judicial decision sometime after Sonthi staged his good coup. The legal basis for that move was that Thaksins party had indulged in massive malpractices during the April 2006 elections.

Now, while Thaksin was nowhere on the scene physically during the December 23 poll, it was common knowledge that the PPP, led by Samak Sundaravej, owed its allegiance to the deposed leader.

The pro-Thaksin PPP

Under the junta-drafted book of democracy, any such association with Thaksin could be a fatal flaw for any party, not just the PPP. The sophisticated reasoning, of course, was that the PPP could be legally disbanded if it had violated this new book of clean democracy by just so much as being a proxy for the deposed leader, who was yet to stand trial on criminal charges of corruption. The rigorous legal test in these new circumstances was projected as one of the PPPs or any partys status as a proactive proxy for Thaksin, as different from being an outfit owing mere allegiance to him.

The subtleties of distinction between being a pro-Thaksin entity and a full-fledged Thaksin proxy would not amuse those who genuinely voted for his return to Thailand. The PPP campaigned on a political platform that provided for his return from exile, among a host of priorities.

For his part, Thaksin, visibly elated over the PPPs electoral showing, reaffirmed his earlier assertions that he would not seek political office on his return to Thailand, whenever that might occur. He emphasised that he was keen to clear his name first, given that he was portrayed by Sonthi and his associates as a corrupt leader with no rightful place in Thailands polity.

The PPP, led by Samak who has an earthy political style, insisted, in the glow of his partys poll performance, that he sensed moves to thwart him from becoming Prime Minister. As a former Bangkok Governor, Samak is no stranger to political shenanigans. So, he lost no time to woo some smaller parties that could help the PPP gain a stable parliamentary majority in a coalition.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Thailands long-established Democrat Party, led by the young, Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjejiva, garnered just over 160 parliamentary seats. This put him at a disadvantage in seeking to form a viable coalition and stake his claim to power. For the junta, a Democrat-led government would be a better bet in the circumstances of a possible return by the prodigal Thaksin.

This became obvious as the junta swung into action to try and get individual poll-winners, the majority of them from the PPP stream, disqualified on grounds of electoral fraud. However, by early January, it was as much in the political hands of Abhisit as those of Sonthi and his associates to make or mar a new dawn of democracy in Thailand at this critical stage.

Some experts on Thai politics, such as Michael J. Montesano, have already perceived that the country has begun a reckoning with history in the context of the interplay between wobbling democratic orders and the established constitutional monarchy under the present King. At the same time, Thailand, with a long history of military coups, is now facing a new reckoning on the issue of democracy itself.

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