Thailand has a new leader but faces same impasse

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 11:57pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 11:57pm

After six months of political protests, Thailand has a new prime minister. In most places, that would be an event heralding change. But for this deeply divided country, Wednesday's ousting of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra does little to resolve the complex political crisis that largely pits the nation's rural poor majority against its urban middle and upper class. The protesters who have been rallying against her are not satisfied. They also want her party removed from power, a prospect that could elicit a fierce response from her supporters.

[The new leader] lacks stature and is seen as an underling of Yingluck

Yingluck's removal after nearly three years in office may even intensify the political gridlock — more bad news for Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.

Here is a look at the scenarios that could play out.

An election, maybe

Parliamentary elections are planned for July, but it remains unclear if they will take place.

In his first remarks as acting prime minister, Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan vowed that holding the election was his main priority. Once a new government is elected, his interim role would end, he said. The trouble is that nobody expects elections will solve Thailand's problems.

Parties allied to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, have won every election since 2001, and if the ruling party wins again, as is expected, the cycle of protests will likely continue. Yingluck, who won an overwhelming victory in 2011, tried to defuse political tension by dissolving parliament in December and calling for snap elections. She was expected to win. but her opponents on the street disrupted the polls, which were then invalidated by the Constitutional Court.

The Thaksin dilemma

Out with one of Thaksin's proxies, and in with another. Just as Yingluck was accused of being her brother's stooge, Niwatthamrong will face the same accusations.

He worked for Shinawatra-family telecommunications companies for two decades, holding several executive positions, before turning to politics after Yingluck won the election. A political unknown, he was rewarded with the important portfolio of commerce minister.

The choice of Niwatthamrong as acting leader does not bode well for Thai politics, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, one of the country's leading political scientists.

"He lacks stature and is seen as an underling of Yingluck and her brother," he said, writing in Thursday's edition of The Bangkok Post. Thitinan said other choices would have been "less of a lightning rod".