Short-circuiting Thai democracy

With the removal of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand has honed its unique form of government — juristocracy — in which the judiciary repeatedly overthrows democratically elected governments on transparent pretexts.

Last week’s decision by the Constitutional Court was widely expected but that did not make it any easier to swallow. Antidemocratic elements — and there is no other word for them — in Thai society refuse to tolerate a government that they do not control, the sentiments of the majority of the Thai people be damned.

This is the third time that judges have removed a prime minister they did not like and this indifference to the popular will is hardening sentiment in Thailand and pushing the country closer to civil war.

The ruling that forced Yingluck from office was ostensibly based on her decision to replace the secretary general of the National Security Council in 2011. While most prime ministers have the right to select their own Cabinet and staff, Thailand’s top court instead decided in a unanimous ruling that it was an abuse of power for her to transfer a civil servant and ordered the prime minister to step down immediately, along with all the other members of her Cabinet who were in office at the time of the offense.

The court said in its ruling that the prime minister’s move had a “hidden agenda,” was intended to create a job for her relative and not done according to “moral principles.”

Sadly this judicial activism is not unprecedented. In an earlier case — cited by the court as precedent — a previous prime minister, also aligned with Yingluck, was forced from office because he appeared on a televised cooking show (supposedly because he accepted payment for the appearances).

The real issue is the ongoing battle between forces in Thai society that are vehemently opposed to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, forced from office in a coup in 2006, and forces that support him and his policies.

The anti-Thaksin group sees Yingluck as a proxy for her deposed brother — and dismisses any political group that espouses his platform as nothing more than a fig leaf for his return (Thaksin is currently in exile in Dubai).

The problem is that Thaksin is popular: Despite his removal from office in a military coup and a constitution written by a successor government that institutionalizes barriers to his return, his party keeps winning elections. That has not stopped the opposition from doing everything they can to keep his allies from running the government.

The result is coup after coup, followed by one loss after another at the ballot box, until pressure builds and another extraparliamentary change is engineered.

The most recent crisis was triggered by an attempt last year to rush through Parliament a bill that would give the deposed prime minister amnesty and allow him to come home. Yingluck dissolved Parliament as protests mounted and the capital of Bangkok descended into violence.

Knowing that they could not win, the opposition decided to block polling stations, preventing votes and preventing some candidates from registering.

As a result, the constitutional court nullified the ballot and Yingluck stayed in office as head of a caretaker government — until the court intervened again last week.

Now, anti-Thaksin forces have occupied the government compound where they hold press conferences and issue demands. Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of that group, is calling for the Senate to install a prime minister to implement political reforms ahead of elections scheduled for July.

While the constitution says the Lower House should appoint the prime minister, Suthep argues that duty now falls to the Senate since the Constitutional Court invalidated the February elections — conveniently neglecting to mention that his supporters boycotted and disrupted that vote.

The opposition argues that Thaksin’s populist policies are every bit as antidemocratic as their alleged behavior. They charge that he has been buying votes and politicians, and Exhibit A in the latest catalog of offenses is a government rice-buying scheme that created a huge hole in the budget.

There were hopes that Yingluck’s dismissal would reduce tensions, but it looks like the anti-Thaksin forces are merely riding the momentum to step up their demands.

The question is whether a compromise is possible or if both sides will hunker down and let violence prevail. Periodic outbreaks of unrest over the years have left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. Since November, more than 20 people have been killed in protests, but each time the country has pulled back from the brink.

Thailand’s opposition may be successful in its rear-guard battles against a democratically elected government, but these “victories” are Pyrrhic. Not only does the resulting instability and chaos do as much damage as Thaksin did to entrenched business and economic interests, but it erodes the foundation of the state’s very legitimacy.

Military intervention was once a norm in Thai politics, but that period has ended. Incredibly, the situation in Thailand today could portend an even worse development — drawn out violence and even civil war.