Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Uncertainty Lies Ahead

Thailand has had a pretty good year since the demonstrations of April and May, 2010, culminated in a bloody crackdown on May 19 in which 91 people died. The country is largely peaceful, the economy is thriving, unemployment is low, the currency is strong. All are usually good omens for success at the ballot box.

But the national election, which will be held Sunday (July 3) is more likely to muddy than clarify the long-running political drama that has divided the country for more than a decade.. The only thing certain about the election, and more importantly what happens after the votes are counted, is uncertainty, says Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij.

This election represents another turn in the long-running political cycle drama in Thailand that pits supporters of ex-prime minister, now fugitive, Thaksin Shinawatra, and opponents who are determined that the former premier will never wield power in Thailand again – or set foot in the country if they can help it.

It is an article of faith that elections in a democracy are necessary to clear the air. That may be true when the losing side accepts the legitimacy of the outcome and contents itself with serving as a loyal opposition until the next polling comes around. That has not been the case in Thailand in recent years.

The Bangkok Post described the long-running political stalemate this way: “In Thailand’s electoral democracy election winners cannot rule; [but] those who rule cannot win elections.”

Whenever Thai people have been asked choose, they have unambiguously sided with the party of Thaksin or his proxy. That was true in the last election held in December 2007 and won by the Thaksin-backed People’s Progress Party (PPP), which formed a government under Thaksin surrogate Samak Sundaravej.

Opponents who go by the shorthand name of “yellow shirts” took to the streets of Bangkok in massive demonstration culminating in the occupation of the government house and the capital’s two main international airports, which brought transportation into and out of the country to a half.

The courts eventually disqualified enough PPP members of parliament on various charges (the first prime minister because he had hosted a cooking show on television), so that the government lost its majority in the lower house and was replace by one led by the Democrat Party. That plus some horse trading among minor parties led to the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Soon the capital was flooded with supporters of the former government, who by then had earned the nickname “red shirts”, and who occupied the commercial center of Bangkok for better part of two months before the police and allegedly the army moved in to suppress the movement and arrest its leaders.

Since it is widely assumed that Thaksin won the hearts and loyalty of so many Thai’s by a boldly populist agenda that included the beginnings of rudimentary health care, development loans to rural areas among other things the current Abhisit government has been, in essence, trying to out-Thaksin, Thaksin.

The government has undertaken several initiatives aimed directly at Thaksin’s constituency, such as land reform, income boosting measures, subsidizing food and diesel oil. In some respects the government has expanded on the Thaksin playbook, such as with programs that probably exceed anything the former government tried.

Minister Korn, speaking recently in Japan, freely admitted that many of these programs have a political dimension. “We don’t want the Thaksin folks to have a [political] weapon,” he said. But he also maintained that there were programs that any government concerned with the people’s welfare should undertake.

And yet none of this seems to have done much to loosen the iron grip that Thaksin has on a significant portion of the Thai people. The Pheu Thai party, the latest political vehicle for Thaksin, is reportedly leading in most opinion polls. The main political divide between the Thaksin-supporting north and northeast and the Abhisit’s strength in the south and middle is largely unchanged.

In previous elections, since he was exiled in 2006, Thaksin has been represented in parliament by surrogates (the courts keep disqualifying his party; loyalists simply regroup under a new name – hence Pheu Thai [for Thai] Party). This time the leader and potential prime minister is his 44-year-old sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who has worked in her brother business empire but never been in politics before.

To have the Thaksin party headed by a genuine member of the family is about as in-your-face as you can get. She is happy to be described as a “clone” of her elder brother. “I understand hum, how he handles politics. That will be the one thing I’ve cloned from his logical thinking and vision,” she has said.

If the “red shirts” return to power one might expect that the opposition will hold mass demonstrations. There may be more investigations into the shadowy elements in the armed forces that are believed to have been behind the killings a year ago. It is possible that the judiciary will intervene to disqualify Yingluck, possibly for alleged financial misdeeds.

If Abhisit is able to form a government, expect more street demonstrations by the red shirts. The new government might be more aggressive in persecuting those on the red side who are believed to have torched many of the commercial buildings in Bangkok during last spring’s uprising confident that they will be in power for a long time.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the situation is how, despite all of the political uncertainty, despite the potential for disrupting post-election chaos, the Thai economy seems to just tick along as if the political disputes were taking place on a different planet.


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