The unexpected flight of Thailand’s former prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, from a controversial court case over a rice subsidy policy has opened up the country’s political space.

Had she appeared in front of the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders on August 25 and ended up in jail, Thailand’s political temperatures would have heightened markedly. Instead, Thai politics has reached a crossroads after nearly two decades of topsy-turvy instability and turmoil. Whether the country can transcend its “yellow versus red” polarisation to regain its footing will depend on the willingness of its old and new elites to play by the rules and stick to the electoral arena to determine outcomes.

As it has regressed from a promising democracy to an outright dictatorship, Thailand’s political standstill can be reduced to two Shinawatra trials and two military coups, punctuated by four elections, so far in the 21st century. Yingluck’s handling of the rice-pledging scheme, after winning the July 2011 elections by a majority, is reminiscent of her eldest brother Thaksin Shinawatra’s assets concealment trial. Thaksin was charged with hiding several billion baht of assets under the names of his household staff in contravention of the reform-driven Constitution of 1997 that promoted transparency and accountability. The National Counter Corruption Commission had indicted Thaksin on an 8-to-1 vote in December 2000, days before his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party won a general election in January with 248 seats in the 500-member lower house of parliament.

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In the eyes of his sceptics and the supporters of the 1997 charter, Thaksin had to know that his money was registered under his servants’ names, despite arguing that his wife was responsible for administrative family matters. Many thought that the NCCC’s overwhelming indictment could not be reversed. But Thaksin had the tide of Thai politics going for him at the time. He rose to the premiership promising to kick out the International Monetary Fund and restore Thai economic potential after the devastation and lost national pride from the 1997-98 economic crisis. His TRT-led government had innovative and so-called “populist” policies to boost the grassroots for economic growth through consumption as well as exports. His critics were a small minority. Most people, including many who would later turn out to be his adversaries, were pulling for him.

The Constitutional Court fudged the verdict with an 8-to-7 count. Seven judges ruled Thaksin guilty, the other eight were split. Half concluded he did not know about the hidden assets and the other half said they had no jurisdiction over the case. The decision politicised the 1997 constitution and catalysed Thailand’s democratic downfall. The Constitutional Court lost credibility, whereas the NCCC became marginalised. Not long after, Thaksin absorbed smaller parties and made Thai Rak Thai into a juggernaut, winning re-election in February 2005, this time with 77 per cent of lower house seats.

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This is where Thai politics encountered a major turning point. After his February 2005 victory, Thaksin became as unstoppable as he was overconfident. A mutual antagonism soon emerged between him and established centres of power which had earlier given him the benefit of the doubt. Brinkmanship ensued. Thaksin was as hubristic and defiant as his opponents were self-righteous and vindictive. Limited street protests from August 2005 expanded into the yellow-clad People’s Alliance for Democracy after Thaksin sold his family-owned Shin Corp for 73 billion baht in January 2006, completely tax-free. Thaksin’s sins of graft and conflicts of interest were suddenly exposed. It was an ugly period in Thai politics that eventually ended with a putsch on September 19, 2006. Thaksin was on the back foot, and he kept back-pedalling while staying inside democratic boundaries. Had his opponents not seized power and instead dealt with him in the electoral arena, Thai politics and its fledgling democratic system under the popular 1997 charter might have had a chance for maturation and consolidation.

Seen in this light, the Yingluck court case is par for the course between Thaksin and his opponents. For the prosecution, her case is as weak as the case against Thaksin was strong. Yingluck was not accused of corruption but of negligence of duty over a manipulative rice-pledging policy she had campaigned on to win Thailand’s last election. When the poll timetable was announced in early 2011, the Yingluck-Thaksin team was looking around for a policy platform that could recapture the winning formulas of 2001 and 2005. This had to involve numbers that were easy for voters to remember. And so came 15,000 baht for a tonne of rice, 15,000 baht per month salaries for bachelor's degree holders, a 300 baht per day minimum wage (an increase of about 40 per cent), among other schemes.

Since almost 40 per cent of Thailand’s labour force is in agriculture, and the majority of those are in rice, Yingluck sailed to victory and was sworn into office on August 10, 2011. The key numbers were 15,000 and 300, just as they were one million baht (for every village) and 30 baht healthcare in earlier elections. These were numbers to entice and take over the electorate rather than rationally calculated policy programmes with logic and longer-term policy objectives. So Yingluck’s opponents have a point about the rice policy manipulation.

But whether and how much the rice-pledging led to billions of dollars in fiscal losses as claimed is a different matter. Yingluck’s policy bet was premised on cornering the world rice market by accumulating Thai rice and paying farmers handsomely up front. If the accumulated rice can be flipped onto world markets with higher prices, then it’s a win. If not, it would incur corresponding losses. As it turned out, Thailand was no longer the only major rice exporter. The rice-pledging was a profligate gamble and a policy disaster whose exact losses can only be determined when stored rice is sold with proceeds compared to originally purchased prices.

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Yet the bottom line is that this was Yingluck’s implemented election campaign pledge. Had she not implemented the policy, her opponents might have gone after her for misleading voters with unfulfilled pledges. To counter a policy that put up the government budget to win votes, the best way would have been in the electoral arena by informing the electorate of downside risks. As this might not have been enough, political opponents of Thaksin and Yingluck should have waited for the next round of polls and worked to win it with more prudent and appealing policy programmes.

For their opponents, beating the Shinawatras at their own electoral game should be the chief lesson of the past two decades. The September 2006 coup, like its sequel in May 2014, could not prevent eventual polls. After the 2006 coup, Thaksin’s party won again in December 2007, despite a new military-inspired constitution. More political drama and street demonstrations and violence rolled into the July 2011 election, which Thaksin conquered again, this time under Yingluck and the Pheu Thai Party. Along the way, the opposition Democrat Party shares substantial blame for not being able to provide the Thai electorate with a viable alternative, despite repeated assistance from the military and judiciary that kept the Shinawatras down time and again.

Thailand is where it has been for most of the past 20 years. Coups will have to end up with constitutions and elections. The best way to get out of this vicious cycle – and now there is a window of opportunity for the powers-that-be on all sides in Thai politics – is to renegotiate and retool charter rules and related laws for all outcomes to be determined in the electoral arena, by the electorate.

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Thailand is now in an uncharted territory. For decades, when push came to shove with political confrontation and violence in the streets, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, with his immense moral authority accumulated over a seven-decade reign, was the final arbiter of Thai crises. But now it is unclear where the buck stops in Thailand. The new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, is just starting out his tenure. Other entrenched institutions, such as the judiciary and the military, have been politicised and parties to the Thai conflict. Accountability promoting agencies like the Constitutional Court and anti-corruption and election bodies are equally questioned by different sides of the divide. And political parties have been systematically weakened, while the junta has effectively contrived the 2017 charter to give the generals a 33 per cent quota of the national assembly, opening a way for a non-MP or military nominee to become prime minister.

The Thai political pendulum is still swinging in the opposite direction in countering the Thaksin-Yingluck challenge. It is time to regain the proverbial middle ground which the Thais are famous for. Doing so requires compromise through mutual accommodation and concession.

The only sustainable way ahead is to promote a civil-military power-sharing arrangement that privileges free and fair elections with a measure of military supervision and a role to play thereafter. Over time, the ruling generals will have to don civilian clothes as the men in uniform return to the barracks. Civilian politicians also will have to eschew graft, focus on policy ideas, deliver more inclusive growth, and strengthen democratic institutions for another chance of democratic transition and consolidation in Thailand.

This process took place in the 1980s-1990s, and it can be replicated under a new reign. Short of a civil-military compromise, Thailand may encounter a disguised military rule through the 2017 constitution. Without a sufficient share of power and authority for elected representatives, the generals will likely encounter combustible popular grievances. The flip side of a compromise between generals and politicians is a reconciliation imperative between new and old elites. Thaksin and his loyalists on one hand – and their opponents from the establishment on the other – must remember, as the late King Bhumibol imparted in dire times of crisis, that no one wins if Thailand ends up in a long-term political tailspin with retarded economic potential.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Political Economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok