Thailand's perfect stalemate

Philip Bowring says post-election Thailand remains gripped by political crisis with the two opposing camps unlikely to back down - unless economic collapse threatens

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 2:56am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 2:56am

The election in Thailand has solved nothing - but few expected it to. The instincts to compromise in the face of economic pressures may yet produce a solution. But, for now, all sides seem set for a long struggle.

The crisis is not so much one of democracy per se but of the institutions which should underlie all systems of government that are not autocracies or absolutist states. Thailand has institutions which, in principle, provide continuity for a country that has been searching for a stable democratic system since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932 but are now the problem, not the solution - starting with the monarchy itself.

Much has been made in the past of the role of the king as guardian of stability, intervening occasionally to bring compromise or order. In reality, he mainly intervened on the side of conservative forces and blessed military intervention. But, now, the king is old, weak and silent; his heir, who lacks popular respect, keeps a low profile. Right-wing mobs invoke the monarchy in ways that undermine its status with the majority of Thais who continue to vote for parties allied to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister Yingluck is prime minister.

Next is the monarchy's supposedly staunchest ally, the military. The army has learned from past interventions, most notably its 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin and changed the constitution to put the unelected Democrat Party into power - until the real election of 2011 returned the Thaksin camp.

The army knows that governing is difficult, and going against popular wishes in a society which is open and thrives on debate is dangerous. Now it also knows that holding power in Bangkok no long assures control of the Thaksin-dominated north and northeast.

Then there is the Democrat Party itself, the longest surviving party, established in 1946. Always royalist, it is now the tool of a Bangkok elite, run by the Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva in league with the anti-democratic thugs headed by protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban. Suthep is a former Democrat Party figure and deputy prime minister under Abhisit - despite his murky past, which includes a corruption case that led to the collapse of the Democrat government of Chuan Leekpai in 1995.

Under the banner of the People's Democratic Reform Committee, Suthep calls for "reform" but then makes it clear that means keeping power in elite hands to prevent "populist" policies being pursued by elected governments. The Democrats are strong in Bangkok and in the rural south. But they are weak in most other urban areas, including the industrialised provinces which surround Bangkok.

In a real street fight, Suthep's middle-class demonstrators would fare poorly against their despised lower-class red shirt opponents behind Thaksin. They need the army to protect them.

The next failed institutions are the courts and the Election Commission, which are supposed to ensure fair play on all sides. However, no one believes that they are much more than agents of the anti-Thaksin camp. The Election Commission tried and failed to postpone the election. Now, it will probably be declared invalid by the Constitutional Court or other judicial organs.

Corruption charges are in the works against Yingluck, just as the courts were used to criminalise Thaksin. No one doubts that corruption has been rampant but the Democrats were probably equally corrupt in power.

Then there is Thaksin and his camp. He swept to power in 2001 partly because the 1997 constitution was designed to create bigger parties and hence more stable - and hopefully less corrupt - government. Power went to Thaksin's head. The checks and balances supposedly built into the 1997 constitution - the Senate, Constitutional Court, National Anti-Corruption Commission - were eroded by appointments of Thaksin supporters. Health and other schemes to help lower-income groups could be justified as needed attempts to reduce Thailand's income inequality but were viewed by the Bangkok elite as vote-buying.

Yingluck seemed to have learned lessons from her brother's overreach. But her attempt to get Thaksin included in an amnesty created much disquiet, and a rice subsidy scheme, economically ill-advised and open to widespread corruption, created an opening for the opposition. Yet, instead of using Yingluck's failings as a basis for getting themselves elected, the Democrats rejected the ballot box, turning to Bangkok street politics.

Last Sunday's election showed a wide measure of dissatisfaction with the government, but also with the Democrats. Many ignored the Democrats' boycott but voted "no" to any of the candidates. People at large want democracy, not the elite rule of Abhisit's pals, but have a negative view of most politicians.

Unfortunately, they lack a choice other than a self-centred Thaksin operating from offshore through surrogates, and a Democrat Party representing elite and Bangkok middle-class interests which can never win an election with its present leadership and ancien régime attitudes.

It is indeed hard to find a middle way through this mess until all the institutions agree to play by mutually acceptable rules. An economic crisis may be needed.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator