The long, green shadow

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2007, 12:00am

The C-word has been on everybody's lips as Thailand prepares for tomorrow's poll. Leading politicians and local and foreign insiders are weighing up the chances of another military coup, should the election not quite follow the script favoured by the ruling establishment.

It is Thailand's first election since tanks rolled onto the streets of Bangkok to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September last year, ending his populist five-year rule.

That putsch was Thailand's first military takeover in more than 15 years - the coup Thailand was never supposed to have, following extensive efforts to remove the nation's sometimes venal generals from the political arena.

This weekend the junta and its interim government are making good on promises to return Thailand to democratic rule. Yet the constant coup talk is just one reminder that they will continue to cast a long, green shadow over Thai politics in the months and even years ahead.

Samak Sundaravej, a veteran right-winger doing Thaksin's political bidding as head of the People's Power Party, acknowledged the coup speculation in an interview with the South China Morning Post this week. But he said the generals knew another coup would be unacceptable and claimed some military factions may still support the exiled telecoms billionaire.

The constant coup talk is also a reminder of Thaksin's own shadow. Until Thaksin is fully removed from the political scene, the ruling military establishment will not rest easy.

Thaksin remains in exile based in Britain, where his purchase of the Manchester City Football Club has kept him in the spotlight. In Thailand, his assets are frozen and his Thai Rak Thai political machine has been barred by the courts and disbanded. He is also facing corruption charges.

Thaksin has repeatedly insisted he has no desire to return to politics, even if he returns to Thailand. But that has not stopped the emergence of the PPP as a political proxy that has become home to 270 former Thai Rak Thai MPs not barred by the courts.

'Thaksin is a good man, he was good for the country,' Mr Samak has been telling cheering crowds across the country, tapping into the still-widespread support for a leader who lavished funds on the poor through loans to villagers and dirt-cheap health care.

At the height of his powers (he was the first prime minister to lead his party into a second term without a coalition) Thaksin spoke about being prime minister for 20 years.

Such a vision was more than sections of Bangkok's military and bureaucratic establishment could bear.

Some viewed Thaksin as disloyal to Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turned 80 earlier this month. They also looked with alarm at Thai Rak Thai's grip on previously independent state bodies, including the Senate.

'Thaksin represents the gravest threat to the old, established order that we've seen in decades,' one senior Democrat said just before the coup. 'It is inconceivable that he will remain in power.'

Now, 15 months since the coup, it is clear that it did not mark the end of an era, but merely the start of a new period of uncertainty.

The interim government may have struggled with the business of governance after the seamless coup - the generals struck hours before Thaksin was due to the address the UN General Assembly in New York - but it has since managed to buttress its strength.

Under the watch of the coup leader, now-retired army chief Sondhi Boonyaratglin, the junta forged a new constitution that strengthens the bureaucracy and weakens the rule of an elected government. It has also drafted an extensive new Internal Security Act that allows for the use of tough emergency laws without parliamentary oversight.

Human Rights Watch has warned of the potential for 'abuses and the arbitrary use of power', and after reviewing a full text of the draft, the group's Asia director, Brad Adams, warned that the act appeared set to perpetuate military rule after the election.

'The next government is likely to be weak and depend on the military for support, so the military is taking advantage and attempting to install itself at the heart of future governments,' he said.

It hasn't all been about politics, either. More traditional military activities are also being well looked after. Military budgets have risen sharply since the coup and the generals have overseen plans to embark on a 10-year shopping spree. About US$8.8 billion has been ear-marked to buy warplanes and ships, and even a submarine.

Yet for all such activity, a coup is far from inevitable. One strand of analysis popular among some well-placed sources is that the military is now in a sufficiently strong position not to need another takeover to keep Thaksin and his cronies down.

For a start, the thinking goes, there is the election itself.

Although Mr Samak's PPP is considered a front-runner in Thaksin's old strongholds, particularly the northeast, it still may only garner 200 or so seats of 480 at stake nationwide. That would force it into a coalition with minor parties now under considerable pressure to ignore the PPP in favour of the other main party, the Democrat Party, Thailand's oldest and now close to the anti-Thaksin establishment.

The PPP effort could be further scuppered by extensive Election Commission investigations into vote-buying, a previously favoured tactic by old-style politicians such as Mr Samak. That would see candidates barred and fresh elections held in some areas.

Then there are continuing investigations into corruption allegations relating to Mr Samak's spell earlier in the decade as governor of Bangkok - probes that pre-date the coup.

'It might take a 'legal' coup rather than a physical one, but I'm sure they will keep the PPP from power,' said one insider. 'It will be death by a thousand cuts.'

Conventional wisdom, therefore, puts the Democrat Party in the driving seat. The Democrats might lose to the PPP but will be able to secure a coalition to take power, with the youthful, Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva as prime minister.

They have acknowledged that ruling will be difficult in such murky circumstances, but they are confident of raising investor and consumer confidence.

Thailand's economy has been growing at a slower-than-expected 4.3 per cent since the coup, well below what the relatively open, developing nation is capable of.

As 45.6 million Thais go to the polls, the military has been keeping a low profile, despite its long reach. Army chief Anupong Paochinda - a 'good guy', according to Mr Samak - has repeatedly played down the chances of renewed military action. The generals, he has said, would make good on their promise to return the country to democracy.

In the back of some voters minds, however, are similar remarks from General Anupong's predecessor, General Sondhi, in the months before he led his tanks into Bangkok to drive Thaksin's government from power.

Above it all sits King Bhumibol, who is now recovering from recent hospital treatment. A constitutional monarch who reigns but can't rule, he has been quietly using his advisory powers. During his 80th birthday celebrations, the monarch made the unusual move of repeatedly pushing one message to move the country forward - unity.

With weeks ahead of wrangling among politicians of radically different stripes and a military determined to keep Thaksin from power, it is far from certain he will get his wish.