It is tempting to call Thai politics a comedy, but to be more accurate, it has descended into farce — if not tragedy. The machinations that have paralyzed the country has undermined a once thriving and vibrant democracy. The Bangkok elites’ determination to disregard the will of the Thai majority shows a contempt for Parliament and the rule of law. Thailand deserves better.
The most recent act in the drama occurred this week when Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat resigned after the Constitutional Court dissolved three of the parties in the ruling six-party coalition. It found them guilty of electoral fraud and banned the prime minister and 59 others (party executives) from politics for five years. His resignation delighted demonstrators who have opposed the government and prompted them to call off their siege, which had shut down two airports.
The demonstrators are from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which alleges that the prime minister’s People’s Power Party (PPP) is corrupt and a cover for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — who happens to be Mr. Somchai’s brother-in-law. Mr. Thaksin was driven from office by a military coup in September 2006. The Constitutional Court ruled in May 2007 that the prime minister and 110 other senior party members committed electoral fraud, banned them from politics for five years and broke up their party. Fearing prosecution on corruption charges, Mr. Thaksin fled.
The military junta that threw him from office forced a new constitution down the throats of Thai voters, then stepped aside for national elections last December. That ballot was won by the PPP, the successor to Mr. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party. The head of the party at the time of those elections was Mr. Samek Sundaravej, who embraced Mr. Thaksin’s policies. He was later forced to resign after the Constitutional Court ruled that his appearances on a TV cooking show constituted a conflict of interest.
Mr. Samek’s resignation did not end his party’s rule; nor is Mr. Somchai’s decision to step down likely to appease the demonstrators. Three parties in the ruling coalition have been banned, three remain, and “shell parties” have been established to which the remaining members of the banned parties can move. Only 24 of the 60 banned executives are lawmakers; the coalition may be able to retain its majority in Parliament and once again frustrate protesters who want the government gone.
The real rub is that even new elections are unlikely to make the demonstrators happy. After all, they have lost two consecutive votes and their policies have not changed. The PAD represents the Bangkok elite, whose grip on power has been threatened by the policies of Mr. Thaksin and his progeny, which have focused on the rural poor and threaten to redistribute perks and funds to the countryside. They have chafed under Mr. Thaksin’s populism and his popularity. They accused him of dishonoring the king — a revered figure in Thailand — but that was primarily a tactic to mobilize people against the prime minister.
The result has been a slowly escalating series of protests that aim to overthrow the will of the majority of Thai people. First they occupied Government House, forcing the government to move to the VIP lounge of one of Bangkok’s airports to do business. Then, they shut down the airports to block Mr. Somchai’s return from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit held last month in Peru. The country was paralyzed as its primary international gateways for tourists and air cargo were occupied. The result has been televised scenes of chaos and confusion, a blight on the image of Thailand, and potentially serious damage to the country’s economy and reputation.
The opposition’s contempt for democracy and its embrace of extra-parliamentary tactics threatens to unleash broader violence. The question is whether PPP supporters will remain calm or copy PAD tactics and take to the streets. If that occurs, a civil war is possible. Earlier this week, someone threw a grenade at protesters at one of the airports, one person was killed and 22 others were wounded. That was a rare act of violence: Thus far the protests have been relatively bloodless, but that could change quickly.
If elections were held tomorrow, the same parties — or at least the same politicians — would be elected. That is likely to encourage remaining members of the government coalition to stick together and vote for one of their own Dec. 8 when Parliament is scheduled to convene to pick Mr. Somchai’s successor. If that happens, the protests could begin anew with yet more fury and frustration. If progovernment demonstrators show a similar contempt for the rules of democracy, then the downward spiral into violence will be complete. The military would be obliged to step in once again, a result that would not displease the PAD. It is a sad commentary on the state of Thai politics that the leaders of a “democratic alliance” would prefer to put their trust in bullets rather than ballots.
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