Political impasse

Print edition : March 07, 2014

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra greets people as she arrives at a polling station in Bangkok on February 2, election day. Photo: DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS

Thaksin Shinawatra in Singapore on January 27. The current unrest in Thailand was sparked off by the government's efforts to pass an amnesty law that would have allowed him to return from exile. Photo: EDGAR SU/REUTERS

Suthep Thaugsuban, anti-government protest leader, collects donations from supporters during a march through Bangkok on February 3. Photo: Wally Santana/AP

Thailand stands on the edge of an abyss as the early elections called by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra turns out to be a futile attempt to end the long-running political crisis, in the face of stiff resistance by the opposition.

THE snap general elections in Thailand on February 2 took place without any violence and bloodshed. On the eve of the elections, the opposition and others intent on foiling the electoral process opened fire on government supporters who were mobilising voters. The incident only undermined further the credibility of the opposition, which had managed to virtually paralyse Bangkok for the past three months. “We wanted ballots but we got bullets,” is the lament of the supporters of the beleaguered Yingluck Shinawatra government. The Prime Minister had called for early elections in what now seems to be a futile bid to end the long-running political impasse.

The Bangkok business elite, having close ties with the royalty, is financing the disruptive activities of the opposition. It has now acknowledged the fact that regime change cannot be brought about through the ballot box in a fair and free election. The opposition has been demanding the replacement of the elected government by an unelected “people’s council”. It wants “reforms” in the electoral system to be implemented first. The ruling party is open to “reforms” but is 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 opposition’s all-out efforts to enforce an election 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, were successful in preventing voters from exercising their franchise in around 10 per cent of the polling booths in their areas of influence. Around two million Thais could not vote. But even in Bangkok, considered to be an opposition stronghold, there was 26 per cent voting despite the threats of violence. The PDRC is headed by Suthep Thaugsuban, who was Deputy Prime Minister from 2008 to 2011. Suthep, who belongs to the Democrat Party, has many criminal charges pending against him, including that of corruption when he was in government.

According to the Thai Constitution, a new government can be formed only if there is a quorum of 475 members in Parliament. Even before the voting started, the opposition prevented the filing of nominations from 28 of the 500 parliamentary constituencies to make sure this clause found application. The Democrat Party was quick to petition the Constitutional Court to annul the elections and ban the Pheu Thai Party from going ahead with the elections. Thailand’s constitutional ombudsman has rejected the opposition’s call but the Constitutional Court is yet to pass a judgment on the validity of the February elections.

Late last year, the court overturned Parliament’s decision to democratise the Senate (Upper House) by electing its members directly. In fact, it has launched criminal proceedings against ruling party legislators 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 the Royal Court.

The country’s Election Commission, which many Thai commentators say is far from neutral, has not announced the plans for holding re-polling in the constituencies that were affected by the opposition’s disruptive tactics. 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 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 was 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 protesters in 2010. In another statement he made in December, Prayuth said the decision on a coup d’etat would “depend on the situation”.

The government spokesman said in late January that the opposition had a secret plan “to lure the military into staging a coup”. 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’etat” and install 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 people back the Pheu Thai Party and its leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He has gone into self-imposed exile in Dubai since 2008.

Yingluck Shinawatra is the younger sister of Thaksin. The opposition has been alleging that Thaksin, a multi-billionaire businessman, is actually running the government. The current unrest was sparked off by Yingluck Shinawatra’s efforts to pass an amnesty law that would have allowed her brother to return home. The amnesty law would have absolved Thaksin as well as those responsible for the killing of Thaksin supporters during the political turmoil in 2010. The proposal 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 currently on the streets of Bangkok resisting the law that they say seeks mainly to pardon Thaksin.

The judiciary has so far treated with kid gloves those demanding the ouster of the elected government and indulging in violence. Veerapong claims that some senior members of the judiciary still hope for a change of government but say that dismissing the government will be deemed an unconstitutional act. In the second week of February, arrest warrants were issued for 19 leaders of the protest movement for violating the emergency rule proclaimed by the government in early January. Legal experts are of the view that there are no grounds for annulling the elections, but they also note that the Constitutional Court has had a penchant for ruling against the Pheu Thai Party. It had annulled the government led by Thaksin eight years ago and had twice dissolved the parties led by him since then.

There is another serious threat looming before the Pheu Thai government. The Prime Minister’s populist “rice purchase” policy, under which the government purchased the crop at 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 rice purchase policy as the reason. “China lacks confidence to do business with us after the National Anti-Corruption Commission started an investigation into the transparency of the rice deals between China and Thailand,” the Thai Commerce Minister announced.

Thailand’s opposition has claimed that the government’s rice purchase policy is a ploy to buy rural votes. The ruling party won the last five elections because of the overwhelming support of rural voters, many of them rice farmers. The farmers have not been paid for their October harvest and many of them are now threatening to join the opposition protests. The 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. It is unable to raise the finances to pay the farmers as the 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,” Yingluck Shinawatra explained.

The economic growth forecast for the country is gloomy in the wake of the turmoil that has paralysed the government. Protesters have occupied Ministry buildings, including those of the Commerce Ministry. Even the Prime Minister’s office was briefly occupied.

Tourism, one of the mainstays of the Thai economy, is also beginning to be impacted adversely. Major infrastructural projects worth more than $61 billion, focussed on mass transit and a high-speed rail network, are now in abeyance. According to the Thai Chamber of Commerce, the Bangkok protests are costing the Thai economy up to $30 million 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 north-east of the country, are even threatening secession if the mandate of the people is overturned by the military or the courts. They have long felt discriminated against by the Bangkok elite. It was only after Thaksin came to power in 2001 that for the first time 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 expand his wide-ranging business interests in the telecommunications sector along with that of his cronies to the detriment of the 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 from a host of age-related health 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 6,000 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 gained strength. The Yingluck Shinawatra government changed tack and initiated dialogue with the separatist group with the help of the Malaysian government. The opposition in Thailand was critical of the dialogue process. The Democrat Party leader and former Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, accused the Pheu Thai Party of encouraging separatism.

Thai politics has entered uncharted political territory in 2014. The country stands on the edge of an abyss.

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