Thailand’s Political Battle Nears Its Endgame

The past week has been some of the most eventful Thailand has seen recently. After months and months of political stagnation, fast-turning events has seen the removal of Yingluck Shinawatra and the start of what is tantamount to a coup d’état by the PDRC. The country delves ever deeper into the ongoing power struggle, but the endgame is coming soon.

Just about two weeks ago, Thailand was still under a complete political gridlock. It was stagnation, pure and simple. The caretaker government remained, but with limited power and unable to obtain a new electoral mandate that would restore its legitimacy; the protesters also remained, but boxed into a public park and unable to force out the government to install the unelected people’s council as demanded.

Then the following week, everything changed. Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office, following a court ruling against her, along with nine of her most important ministers. Now the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protesters have set up a new base at Government House, the official office of the Prime Minister itself.

The Abhisit Proposal

Abhisit presenting his proposal

An attempt was previously made at shaking up the political gridlock. Abhisit Vejjajiva, former Prime Minister and leader of the opposition Democrat party, proposed the following plan: Yingluck steps down, an interim Prime Minister would be appointed, albeit with limited powers, and he would be responsible for setting a referendum on which reforms would be implemented, while the Electoral Commission tightens its rules to make elections more fair. The referendum would be followed by a general election; the succeeding government would be obliged to follow through with those reforms. It was clearly an act of compromise; the PDRC would get its appointed government to kick-start reforms, while an elected government as favored by the red-shirts would not be long in coming.

Everyone rejected it. The government criticized it for being unconstitutional, and for being just what the PDRC was demanding; meanwhile Suthep Thaugsuban, PDRC secretary-general,  asked his former boss not to meddle, for this plan would not allow the unelected government to complete reforms as he wants. This makes one thing clear: neither side is willing to back down, and neither side is looking for anything less than total victory over the other. Abhisit’s well-intentioned plan of negotiated compromise ended up being unacceptable to everyone.

It is difficult to see for what exact reason Abhisit proposed his plan in the first place. Being such an experienced player of the harsh game of Thai politics, should he not have known better? It is plausible that Abhisit’s plan was only made to clearly separate the Democrat Party from the PDRC, for the PDRC’s actions and tactics are not always perfectly legal (obstructing elections is not). Or, it was to provide to Suthep a possible plan to use in case he ever needed to back down.

In any case, the rejection of Abhisit’s plan made clear a hard truth: there would be no compromise. Both sides would fight it out; either the Thaksin regime is eradicated, or it stays in power. There would be no acceptable ‘middle way’.

A Crippling Blow

The caretaker government would be dealt a crippling blow in the next week from a familiar corner: the Constitutional Court. The court had certainly given Thaksin many injuries now; it dissolved his original Thai Rak Thai Party, kicked out his first nominee Prime Minister, Samak, for hosting a cooking show, forced out the second, Somchai, while dissolving Thaksin’s second People’s Power Party at the same time.

Yingluck walking towards Court

So when a court case was presented by a group of senators asking for the removal of Yingluck, few doubted what the final verdict will be. It came out just as most guessed: Yingluck was removed from power by the court, the third Thaksinite PM to meet this fate, along with nine of her ministers. Many cheered; but many also jeered at this outcome. Cries of outrage against this judicial intervention was heard from the red shirts, and the ruling Pheu Thai Party declared it a ‘judicial coup’.

It could be called a judicial coup, perhaps, but it is important to consider for what reason Yingluck was removed. The court case concerned the transfer of Thawil Pliensri, chief of the National Security Council, to a position with little work at the Prime Minister’s office; Thawil was replaced by Wichien Potpolsri, formerly commander of the Royal Thai Police. In place of Wichien, Priewpan Damapong was promoted. Thawil is well known for being critical of the government, so this move is understandable, but the fact that Priewpan is a close relative to Thaksin makes the decision reek of cronyism; Thawli was only moved to move out Wichien and therefore give Priewpan the top job with the police. Thaksin’s governments have always seen the rule of nepotism; his second choice for nominee Prime Minister, Somchai, was a close relative, Yingluck his sister. The transfer of Thawil was, in short, an abuse of power. The court ruled so.This political favoritism is hardly democratic- whereas governmental positions should be given out based on merit, Thaksin gives based on how close the official is to him.

Thawil smiling in Court

So for all the outrage against ‘judicial coup’, it must be remembered: a state that is to protect itself from outright dictatorship must have checks and balances on power. The Pheu Thai government often blasts the Democrat Party for boycotting elections, a vital process in a democracy. But they themselves often ‘reject’ the rulings of the judiciary, which is an essential balance to the government’s power. They see no need for any proper checks and balances on their own power, for it is their wish that they have absolute control over the government. 

Yingluck was duly forced out and Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, formerly a commerce minister, appointed in her place. (Niwatthamrong also happens to be a close aide of Thaksin, who was once on the board of Thaksin’s telecommunications company, and also presided over the disastrous failure known as the rice-pledging scheme). Yingluck would later receive a next blow in the form of indictment from the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which found her guilty for a lack of responsibility regarding the rice-pledging scheme.

A People’s Coup

Suthep announcing rally

The removal of Yingluck was a vital step forward for the PDRC. “The government,” Suthep proclaimed, “is now a headless apparition.” The PDRC has always been looking for a political vacuum. In fact, many protesters were hoping that the court would order the removal of the entire cabinet, which would certainly create a political vacuum. It was unclear, however, how the PDRC would seize power after such a political vacuum was created. Suthep had announced vaguely that power belongs to the people, thus it must return to the people: but he gave few details.

Immediately in the aftermath of the court ruling, the PDRC struck. Suthep led a ‘final’ march on May 9th, leading protesters to surround most major free TV channels and occupying Government House, promptly setting up his new base there. As a parallel development, the Senate promptly voted as speaker Surachai Liangboonlertchai- a man openly favored by the PDRC.

Suthep then gave a speech detailing his game plan for the change in power. The House of Representatives would ordinarily be responsible for selecting the Prime Minister, but the Executive Branch of the country had no Prime Minister, for Yingluck had been removed, and there has been no House of Representatives in Thailand since December. Therefore, the Senate is the only organ of that branch still functioning. Suthep requested the Senate, along with the judiciary, which was the other pillar of national authority still remaining, to appoint a new Prime Minister together. This would pave the way to the creation of an unelected people’s council that would oversee reforms to the political system and eradicate the influence of Thaksin.

It was tantamount to a coup d’état in progress. A clear way forward to the appointment of Suthep’s people council that will hold reforms before elections can now be seen.

The Endgame

The battle now continues, with both sides trying their best to use legal issues to their advantage. The PDRC continues to question the legitimacy of the acting Prime Minister, Niwatthamrong: does a cabinet with nine of its ministers gone have the authority to appoint a new Prime Minister? The red shirts retaliated that Surachai’s election as Senate speaker was illegal, for voting for a new speaker had not been on the Senate’s agenda that day, and the speaker has yet to receive royal endorsement.

And it is these red shirts and Thaksin that must be watched. If they fail to stop Suthep, then the PDRC’s victory is near; the Senate would almost certainly be able to cooperate with the judiciary to appoint a new interim government. The military is widely known to be sympathetic to the cause of the protesters, and so any action from the military against such a move would be unlikely.

The red shirts themselves seem to be running out of momentum. Previous rallies where the red shirts attempted to rally hundreds of thousands ended with low maximum estimates, and had to end early. The red shirts are once again rallying on the western border of Bangkok, and they threaten to escalate the game. What could this escalation be? The red shirts are well known to have violent, militant elements that managed to wreck such havoc in Bangkok back in 2010; a repeat of that while a massive PDRC rally is going on would lead the country towards civil war.

The rejection of Abhisit’s plan demonstrated clearly that there would be no compromise between the two sides; this is a winner-takes-all scenario. Next, the political atmosphere which was until very recently one of stagnation was immediately stirred into a state of flux after the removal of Yingluck and nine ministers, leaving the already-embattled cabinet in tatters. This paved the way for the PDRC’s still-ongoing coup in Bangkok, which will certainly succeed unless Thaksin responds strongly enough.

In a way, it is a strange twist of fate that it was the Amnesty bill, which could have brought Thaksin home, has now lead to him fighting a losing battle that can crush his dreams of continuing to hold influence in Thai politics. The opposition has learned well since the 2007 coup d’état. Anything less than the complete eradication of Thaksin’s influence would not do. The Thai phrase ‘remove the roots, remove the trunks’ will certainly be applied once the PDRC is successful in toppling the Pheau Thai regime. If the PDRC wins, then Thaksin’s influence will certainly be sharply reduced and any return to power for the self-exiled man in Dubai would be immensely difficult.

With the red shirts seemingly much reduced in scale from their peak in 2010, and no restoration of electoral legitimacy in sight for the government, Thaksin’s moves are clearly limited. On the other hand, the PDRC are gaining momentum and now have a clear plan towards victory. But Thaksin is unwilling to compromise, and he will still try to fight to win. What will he do? No one knows, but the endgame is approaching, and the next few days and weeks will determine the future of Thailand.

-Ken

(Click here to read previous opinion posts about Thai politics).

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