Thailand is once again being convulsed by extreme partisan politics, with the country’s polarization playing out on Bangkok’s streets. Several people have been killed, and many more have been injured. The sense that Thailand has been through all of this before would be mildly reassuring were it not for a nagging fear that this decent and prosperous society may be set to destroy its democracy.
Much of the violence has been led by former Thai deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban. He has inspired thousands of demonstrators, many from his power base in the country’s south, to storm and occupy government buildings with the aim of unseating Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of outsted former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Suthep said that this is the first step in rooting out “Thaksinism” from the country’s political life.
On Dec. 1, Suthep demanded — and received — a meeting with Yingluck in the presence of Thailand’s military chiefs, whom he had asked to guarantee his safety.
During the meeting, Suthep gave Yingluck a two-day deadline to resign. With the police failing to control the mobs in the streets without the help of the military, Yingluck decided to resign and dissolve parliament, declaring that she would lead a caretaker government until a new election is held on Feb. 2.
The date was endorsed by a “reform forum,” established to resolve the crisis and comprising Bangkok’s elite, including the military.
Suthep and his followers were dissatisfied and left the forum in protest, rejecting Yingluck even as an interim prime minister and demanding that the election be held after political reforms — the sort he would agree with — are implemented to eliminate all vestiges of the Thaksin clan from government.
In fact, Suthep has called for a “people’s council,” comprised of 400 unbiased representatives.
The council would replace the Senate after the upper house nominates a new leader to be appointed by the king, thus obviating the need for elections in the near future.
Wassana Nanuam, the military-affairs correspondent of the English-language Bangkok Post, has described the move as a “silent” coup d’etat: no tanks in the streets.
The Democrat Party, led by the former court-appointed Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, has separately announced a boycott of the Feb. 2 election on the grounds that the party could not reform the country even if the public participated. The Democratic Party last won a parliamentary majority in 1992.
While the military chiefs’ inclinations have been with Bangkok’s elites, they are being careful to keep their options open.
Their unsuccessful stint in power following the military coup in 2010 appears to have taught them that they should wait to see if their political allies can break Thaksin’s electoral stranglehold, which has lasted 12 years and five general elections, before deciding what to do next.
Bangkok’s elites maintain that billionaire Thaksin and his allies have bought their electoral victories. However, Freedom House, which tracks democracy and civil rights around the world, declared Yingluck’s landslide electoral victory in 2011 free and fair, a position supported by most Thailand experts.
Despite Thaksin’s corrupt image, a majority of mainly poorer Thais see him as their only alternative to the country’s out-of-touch urban elites. Indeed, Suthep’s insistence on delaying the election is an open admission that he and his allies cannot win a fair contest, and he has even gone so far as to suggest that, with the “right” leader, Thailand may not need elections at all in the future.