Compromise the way forward for Thailand

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 March, 2010, 12:00am

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra could hardly be called a friend of democracy. Yet as abhorrent as his strong-arm rule and infringing of basic freedoms were, he nonetheless was twice democratically elected. And now his red-shirted anti-government supporters are again besieging the capital and calling for free and fair elections. And they have again been denied by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. In rejecting their demands yesterday, he said the conditions and timing for polls were not right. His refusal was less about circumstances than a spurning of compromise and negotiation.

Abhisit and his military and establishment elite backers have roundly rejected deals with their political opponents. This refusal has put Thailand in a precarious economic and social situation. Divisions between the urban rich and rural poor run deep. Discontent will ease only through bargaining that leads to constitutional reform and elections.

Thaksin's removal in a coup four years ago precipitated the crisis. That is not to say that the former prime minister was a paragon of virtue; he lives in exile to avoid a prison sentence for corruption. But he did win elections.

That is more than can be said of Abhisit, who took power 15 months ago in a parliamentary vote after the removal by courts of two Thaksin-backed prime ministers who had also been fairly elected.

The next elections are not due until the end of next year. That is too long to wait for the protesters, who have been time and again rebuffed in their demands for a more democratically elected government. They question the judicial system which has repeatedly ruled against Thaksin and his supporters. They want the 1997 constitution restored; it was scrapped by the military and replaced by a less-democratic version after Thaksin's overthrow.

Every effort has been made to keep Thaksin out of politics. His political parties have been disbanded and politicians who support him barred from holding office. A court last month confiscated more than half of his considerable wealth still held in Thai banks, and frozen after the coup. Yet it is clear Abhisit heads a minority government.

The tens of thousands of pro-Thaksin protesters who have descended on Bangkok are a good indication that if elections were to be held, the prime minister would be hard-pressed to stay in power.

The protests have so far been largely peaceful. For Thailand's sake, organisers have to ensure they stay that way. Investment and tourism, the lifeblood of the economy, will suffer if there is violence. Nothing is to be gained by using force.

In many ways, there is nothing untoward in the protesters' wishes. They seek a government that represents Thais. Reconciliation lies in the government talking to the opposition. It has to be willing to allay fears and concerns. There has to be compromise. Ultimately, though, elections that are held freely and fairly are the best answer for Thailand's peaceful development and progress.

Without that, the country will remain locked between two groups that see no common ground.