It is in keeping with his singular style of governance that Thailand’s embattled prime minister, Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, lost his job by winning an election. His victory in snap elections has precipitated a constitutional crisis. Sensing that a numerical majority would not allow him to govern, Mr. Thaksin stepped down — for the good of the nation, he said — and passed on to his opponents the burden of fixing the political mess. It is a cruel irony, but it is vitally important that they succeed. Thailand’s democracy could hang in the balance.
Mr. Thaksin has been a bold leader since he first won office five years ago. He was a successful telecommunications entrepreneur — one of Asia’s richest men — who came to power by projecting an image of efficient and effective leadership. He promised to share his success with ordinary Thais, and his campaign pledged ample funds and debt relief to rural areas. He kept those promises, and won the firm support of those communities. Their support allowed him to be the first Thai prime minister to serve a full term and be re-elected with a handsome parliamentary majority in 2005.
Urban Thais, however, were less impressed with Mr. Thaksin’s performance. They criticized a ruthless antidrug campaign that resulted in thousands of suspicious deaths. They feared that his heavy-handed response to Muslim violence in the country’s southern provinces was only increasing alienation and making a real solution more difficult. They believed that he turned a blind eye to cronyism and corruption. But they were most outraged by the prime minister’s family’s decision — Mr. Thaksin had had to divest his shares when he took office, although most people believe he maintained control — to sell its stake in a telecommunications company to Singaporean investors. The readiness to sell an element of the national infrastructure to foreigners was hard to swallow, but revelations that the deal also allowed the family to take a $1.9 billion tax write-off was too much to bear.
Protesters have filled the streets since the beginning of the year, forcing Mr. Thaksin to call a snap election. As expected he won the ballot: His Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party won 16 million votes out of 28 million cast. The overwhelming victory was flawed, however, by the opposition decision to not field candidates in a number of districts. Unopposed candidates must win at least 20 percent of the vote to take office, but the opposition told its supporters to vote “no,” effectively denying the winners office in 39 districts. The opposition then refused to field candidates in upcoming by-elections, preventing all 500 seats in the Parliament from being filled and putting a government in place.
Facing a standoff, Mr. Thaksin promptly resigned, saying that he did not want the political crisis to overshadow the 60th anniversary of the accession of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which will be held this summer. He named Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathit, a police general who serves as justice minister, as interim prime minister. But he is not a member of parliament and cannot hold office. But Parliament cannot convene to name a replacement with seats empty, so it is not clear when — or if — that can occur.
Mr. Thaksin’s decision to step down has not lessened opposition anger. Mr. Chitchai is a Thaksin loyalist, and the opposition fears that the former prime minister will now rule from behind the scenes. Mr. Thaksin has said that he wants to go on a long vacation, but has vowed to maintain his position in Parliament and to remain as head of his party. The opposition has demanded that he quit politics.
Mr. Thaksin’s reference to the anniversary celebrations was a smooth tactical move. It shifts the burden to the opposition to now moderate its behavior: He claims to be acting in the national interest and by invoking the king’s name, he is challenging them to do the same. The opposition, a broad alliance, has called on the king to appoint a government and has promised to continue mass protests until he does so.
Given the constitutional stalemate, the king may have to act. The military has suggested that protests be moderated now that Mr. Thaksin has resigned. The prospect of it returning to politics is an ominous one. Until 1992, the military intervened regularly in Thai politics. Its return to the barracks has been one of the great victories for democracy in Southeast Asia and has made Thailand a showcase for the region. A number of other leaders are watching how events unfold in Thailand. The unseating of a legitimately elected prime minister by mass protest sets a dangerous precedent. All Thais who believe in democracy must prove that change can be brought about peacefully through constitutional procedures. Friends of Thailand must insist that there be no other way.
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