As Protests Continue, Thaksin’s Power Erodes

‘I came from elections’, ‘the majority chose me’; these are some of the favorite catchphrases of Yingluck Shinawatra. Indeed, constant and predictable victory in national elections is where the Thaksin regime derives its legitimacy. Despite the fact that democracy is so much more than just voting at the election booth, the government continues to position itself as the guardian of democracy and the champions of the majority.

Meanwhile, the protests have been perceived to be dwindling in size, albeit still continuing its festive mood. (Chidlom resembles a concert stage more than a rally site). Many think that the protests have not managed to accomplish much, and is unlikely to succeed at anything further.

In my last post, Towards Reform: Thailand’s Protests, I analyzed the undemocratic attitude of the Thaksin regime, its incompetence and corruption and the need for reforms for elections. Thaksin himself, as stated by BusinessWeek, is more of an elected autocrat than a champion of democracy. That, however, is simply where I stand on the issue. Here, I look into why Thaksin’s hold on power is gradually slipping. The protests have not accomplished nothing.

Dwindling ‘Majority’

Yingluck was desperate for an election. Her government has suffered its share of indignities; to restore her legitimacy as a government, she needs a new election, to show the local and international community that she still has the popular mandate to continue ruling.

Only a few days before, Yingluck and Thaksin got what they were waiting for. Thailand held a general election- although it is less ‘general’ than one might think. Only around 47% of eligible voters participated in the election, and numerous provinces, mostly in the South, held no elections at all. Parliament would not be able to convene, certainly; it would take numerous by-elections for the 95% quorum to be made. In some provinces, like Nakhon Sri Thammarat, as little as 0.11% of voters casted a vote. 

Both sides made advances towards their goals. Yingluck and Thaksin got the election they wanted, and  her party is bound to win even more seats in Parliament when it manages to convene (the Democrats, the main opposition, had boycotted the election). The protesters, on the other hand, have disrupted the elections enough to make sure that Parliament will not be convened in the foreseeable future, thus ensuring that no new government can be formed.

At a glance, it seems like this is a political stalemate and it will continue. Take a closer look, however, and many things will be noticed.

Firstly- the claim that the Pheu Thai party continues to be the ‘majority’ is quickly becoming challenged. The 47% statistic for percentage of voters is small in comparison to the 2011 elections, where 73% casted a ballot.

In addition, many people chose not to adhere to Suthep’s call for not voting at all- but instead chose to ‘vote no’: to say they have used their voting rights, but wish to give no party their vote. 28% of the ballot cards counted were either spoiled ballots or ‘no’ votes.

Pheu Thai could have, the support of, at most, less than 28% of eligible voters. 

This is a serious problem for Thaksin. His sister derives his legitimacy for himself through large majorities showing up to vote for him at the election booth. The statement that Pheu Thai still has a large majority may prove to be very debatable indeed. Perhaps ‘I came from elections’ and ‘I have the support of the majority’ can no longer even be Yingluck’s catchphrases. 

An Election for Nothing

Yingluck placing her ballot (in the wrong box).

The elections may also prove to become nullified or may never be completed. As it stands, the elections are incomplete and it will require by-elections in several areas, especially in the South where support for the protest movement is strong. Yet it would be difficult to finish the elections in these areas. Why would the government expect people who so strongly opposed the polls to come out and vote in another election? The 95% quorum required for Parliament to convene won’t be able to be reached.

Secondly, even if the government manages to miraculously shove away all its problems and get a 95% quorum, the elections could possibly be nullified by the judiciary. Many possible illegal acts that breached the constitution were observed. For example, the holding of the election on multiple dates, the releasing of election results despite the fact that the elections were not even over; many reasons for why the election may not lead to anything. If these points are confirmed, then a court could rule to have the entire election results declared invalid. (This happened before in an election where Thaksin was the sole competitor and had to bribe smaller parties into joining).

The most likely scenario is that Yingluck will continue to be the head of a caretaker administration, with very limited powers. It is for this exact reason that the government is weak.

Angry Farmers and Probing Courts

Yingluck’s government is a lame duck government. Its power are limited and its ability to govern is incomplete. And I suspect that Thaksin would be frustrated at his miscalculation, months ago, that the protests would melt away once Parliament was dissolved. Instead, the protests have only grown stronger while the government has become a caretaker administration and limited its power for nothing.

And new players enter the scene. The rice pledging scheme has ended disastrously, and the tons of rice sitting in Thai warehouses cannot be sold for they have to be priced so expensively. But the farmers had already pledged their rice. They await money. No money is to be found. It is for this reason that the farmers, previously the base support of the government, have erupted into protests.

(Slightly off topic, but the rice purchase agreement made between China and Thailand that was so promoted by the government turned out to be nonexistent. It is unlikely that the rice will be able to sold).

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for these farmers. For months they have had no income; money promised to them from the government is not coming, despite multiple promises and dates which have all turned out to be a series of lies. Now, however, the farmers are simply broke. Government efforts to secure loans to pay these farmers have resulted in failure, mostly because 1) as a caretaker government they cannot accumulate more debt that will burden the next administration and  2) no local bank is crazy enough to trust the government and let them borrow money.

While many of the farmers still hold separate rallies, blocking roads leading to the provinces, some have joined the main PDRC protests. A house cannot stand without a strong base. Similarly a democratic government will not be able to rule unless it holds the favor of the people. If not even the rural rice farmers, the traditional supporters of the Shinawatras, will remain on their side, it is not known who will.

This alone will probably not force the government to leave. The judiciary, however, may represent a hope for the protesters. The same rice pledging program is leading to probes from the National Anti-Corruption Commission that may lead to the impeachment of the Prime Minister. Thailand’s courts have been reputed for interventionist actions in the past years, forcing the resignation of multiple Thaksin-backed Prime Ministers. Even a military coup cannot be ruled out.

Protests and Officials

The protests themselves, which caused the dissolution of Parliament months ago, have not ran out of steam. Although during the weekdays the rally sites are virtually empty, the nights and weekends still see an influx of protesters into the new walking street created around Siam. The (partial) Bangkok Shutdown campaign continues.

Indeed, it seems like many influential government officials are in support of the PDRC. Government officials from many ministries, such as the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Public Health, have seen people as senior as permanent secretaries give speeches on the PDRC stage with Suthep.

Add everything together, and Thaksin’s grip on power seems to be dangerously slippery. To say that because protest numbers are dwindling means that the government must be having the upper hand would be misleading. 

Thaksin’s Options

Considering that Thaksin cannot resolve the problems he has in his base of voters, the farmers, because his sister only runs a caretaker government, and the elections which will legitimize him will most likely amount to nothing but a waste of state funds, Thaksin does not have many options left.

He could try to forcibly break the protests, but the CMPO (Center for Maintaining Peace and Order, responsible for enforcing emergency law) has proven to be hilariously weak. Its chief, caretaker labour minister Chalerm Yubamrung, was, very symbolically, refused a handshake from the army’s Commander in Chief; without the army the police would be hard-pressed to do much.

Thaksin could even try to create as much violence as possible. One of his lackeys, Ko

Koh Tee

Tee, a leader of the red shirts, said:

I want there to be lots of violence to put an end to all this. I’m bored with speeches. It’s time to clean the country, to get rid of the elite, all of them.

-Ko Tee, Red shirt leader

Not very long afterwards violence erupted at Lak Si, on the day before the elections. (The police were quick to point their finger at the protesters, but the army later came out to clarify that bullets were shot from both sides). Thaksin could try to escalate the situation with greater violence. What that would lead to is anyone’s guess, although it is more likely that an outbreak of violence would lead to a military coup and not a crackdown on the protesters.

he protests may continue for much longer, and final victory for the protesters is still not certain. Overall, however, there are only so many cards left that Thaksin can play. His power is clearly collapsing. If the protesters are festive, perhaps they have good reason to be so.

Supporting the PDRC

I believe that nothing is to be gained from standing ‘in the middle’. Obviously neither side are willing to compromise. Those on social networks have termed the people who call for ‘peace’ and ‘compromise’ the ‘loke suay‘ group- ‘utopian’, ‘beautiful world’. I would not go as far as to criticize these views, but it is also clear that neither side is willing to compromise. Thaksin has his own self-serving agenda. Suthep will also not negotiate for anything lesser than the resignation of Yingluck.

I cannot pretend to support every move made by the PDRC. The blocking of elections in some areas were depriving others of their basic rights and its plans for ‘reform’ are also still very vague. But supporting ‘no one’ would not eradicate the influence of Thaksin from the country. Now that Thaksin’s power is beginning to be eroded through the efforts of the PDRC, I see nothing wrong with giving it support so that it does succeed, cleansing the country of the damaging influence of Thaksin Shinawatra and his cronies that has plagued the country for over a decade, once and for all.

-Ken

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