Compromise is crucial to resolve Thailand's political stand-off

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 3:54am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 1:18pm

Political office is about serving the people. Thailand's urban and business elite, which is supporting the opposition, have forgotten this most basic aspect of governance in their frenzy to remove populist Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and expunge all traces of the influence of her brother, ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra. They refuse to participate in the election called for February 2, and persist with demands for the country to be run by an appointed council of "good" people. Bypassing the democratic process is not in the interests of the majority of Thais and is a recipe for a deepening of civil conflict.

The strategy of the main opposition Democrats is based simply on their inability to win a popular mandate. They were trounced by Yingluck's Puea Thai party in the last election in 2011 and by Thaksin or his allies in the previous four polls. Clever politicking and sound policies were behind the victories. They contributed to Thailand's strong economic growth and to poverty alleviation, and ushered in universal health care and an improvement in the standard of living. Thaksin, ousted in a military coup in 2006 and living in exile to avoid a prison term for abusing power, is still wildly popular, especially among the poor and in the rural north and northeast.

Protest leader and former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban claims Thaksin and his family have hijacked power for their own interests. It is true that some of the policies, like an expensive rice subsidy scheme and huge infrastructure projects, have a questionable worth for the nation. Political mismanagement - Yingluck's trying to push for an amnesty for her brother - precipitated the latest crisis. There is no shortage of ammunition for the Democrats to fight the election, but they have so far been unwilling to rise to the challenge.

Winning over voters takes time, good policies and effort. Suthep has rejected this path in favour of the protests and unconstitutional methods. But rejecting the will of the people is no solution; it will only mobilise Thaksin's supporters and give them cause to cry foul. Compromise through finding common ground is therefore also necessary.

No electoral system is perfect and Thailand's certainly has its problems. But rejecting the electoral process in favour of an appointed government will not bring peace and stability. Nor will Thais benefit from another military intervention. Constitutional amendments agreeable to both sides and free and fair elections may be the best way forward.