Snap poll

Print edition : January 10, 2014

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra greeting villagers during a tour of Surin province on December 18 Photo: AFP

Thai anti-government protesters, who returned to the streets, lunch during a march in Bangkok on December 9. Photo: Apichart Weerawong/AP

The decision on December 9 by Yingluck Shinawat- ra, Thailand’s embattled Prime Minister, to dissolve Parliament and call a snap general election seems unlikely to cure the latest violent spasm gripping the Bangkok body politic, stemming from more than a decade of indigestible north-south, rich-poor social divisions and visceral personality politics.

Despite the Prime Minister’s ostensibly placatory announcement, opposition parties vowed to continue anti-government demonstrations, suggesting that the proposed February 2 election amounted to a trick to perpetuate the rule of the Shinawatra “regime”. But so far they have failed to come up with a viable alternative plan to run the country.

The stand-off threatens to undermine democratic governance in a country where military coups have been commonplace and where parties defeated in elections have rarely accepted their fate with grace or dignity. Some Thai political scientists, in the style of America’s Tea Party, now claim that winning the most votes is not necessarily the most important qualification for legitimately holding political office.

Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Deputy Prime Minister who leads the protests, said early elections would make no difference. “The dissolving of Parliament is not our aim,” he said. Suthep has instead been calling for a new Prime Minister to be chosen by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s ageing and influential monarch. He has also floated a proposal for an appointed “people's council” comprising “decent men” whose main task would appear to be the reconfiguring of the electoral system to ensure Yingluck and her exiled elder brother and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra never again hold political power.

Suthep suggests his Platonic wise-men oligarchy will eventually give way to an elected government, but has not said how long this will take. Opportunistic opposition parties, who also abhor Thaksin and his kin, have shown a similar lack of responsibility. In 2010, the then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of an unelected government installed by Thaksin’s opponents, survived a similar wave of street protests by pro-Thaksin “red shirts”. He had the Army to thank for his rescue; about 90 people died during the unrest.

Now Abhisit, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, has refused to say whether he will participate in the proposed February election. Most opposition MPs resigned from parliament on December 8. “House dissolution is the first step towards solving the problem,” Abhisit said. “Today, we march. I will walk with the people to Government House.” Yingluck’s decision to allow Thailand’s 66 million-strong population what is effectively a referendum on her Puea Thai government, which won in a landslide result in 2011, looks statesmanlike on the face of it, but is not quite what it seems.

“The government does not want any loss of life... At this stage, when there are many people opposed to the government from many groups, the best way is to give back the power to the Thai people and hold an election. So the Thai people will decide,” she said in a televised speech.

Yet the near certainty that Puea Thai will win again accounts for Suthep’s and Abhisit’s reluctance to go down the electoral route. While the opposition can count on support from middle-class Thais in Bangkok and the non-Muslim areas of the south and from pro-establishment royalists, they have been permanently outnumbered, electorally speaking, since Thaksin first won office in 2001 backed by the poorer, rural masses of the north and the east.

A telecom billionaire whose populist presumption deeply offended traditional Thai hierarchies, Thaksin was deposed during his second term in 2006 by an army coup and fled the country two years later amid corruption and bribery allegations.

Thaksin now lives in exile in Dubai, from where, his detractors allege, he controls the Bangkok government. The present unrest was sparked in November when Yingluck proposed an amnesty law that would have allowed her brother to return. Yingluck might also be congratulated for avoiding the violent clashes that have disfigured previous upheavals and for keeping the army out of the fray. Thailand’s military has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years and is no stranger to political meddling.

On the other hand, the generals, like the king, are no friends of the Thaksin clan. This time around, the army has said it does not want to get involved although it has tried to mediate. Both sides have invoked the authority of the king to boost their positions. Both observed a truce on December 12, the monarch’s 86th birthday. But the reality is that Bhumibol is ill, frail and rarely seen.

Nor is it wholly clear that the monarchy will survive his passing. Thais must find another way out of the blind alley into which they have blundered.

Simon Tisdall

©The Guardian News Service