BANGKOK — Thailand’s political pendulum has now swung all the way back to an era that existed before the rise of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001. What transpired under Thaksin during 2001-2005 is being undone and redone. Whether the new Democrat Party-led government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva can maintain old-style, pre-2001 Thai politics will be the overarching theme of 2009.
The pro-status quo coalition that expelled Thaksin from power from September 2005, when the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) coalesced, has so far succeeded beyond expectations in its restoration of pre-Thaksin Thailand.
As Thailand’s political clock has been wound back by a decade, the pressing question this year is whether it can be kept there in the face of rising expectations and a growing political consciousness previously unseen, underpinned by the inexorable drive of democratization and globalization.
Indeed, Thai politics following the dissolution of the previous ruling parties and Thaksin’s allies in early December reveals an unmistakable parallel to the pre-Thaksin past. It features an unwieldy coalition government. Factions have greater leverage over political parties, and members of Parliament have regained autonomy at the expense of party institutionalization and discipline.
The bureaucracy, led by the judiciary, has resurged at the expense of executive and legislative authority. Parties can be dissolved in short order, MPs banned for prime periods of their careers. Representing Establishment forces, the holy trinity of military, bureaucracy and monarchy have returned to the apex of Thai society at the expense of Parliament, parties and politicians, as democratic rule is subsumed under Establishment preferences.
That Abhisit’s government is a direct outcome of these preferences has been conspicuous. The army played an instrumental role in hoisting the Democrat Party into government through the back door, enabled by certain judicial verdicts and PAD’s virulent movement against Thaksin, his nominees and his allies under the rubric People’s Power Party and now Puea Thai Party. The business community and Bangkok’s middle class provided the requisite endorsement.
At first, it appeared that the Establishment had lost its way. The military coup in September 2006 ousted Thaksin but ended up with a lackluster Cabinet. Rules were changed but Thaksin’s allies still managed to win the general election in December 2007. When Thaksin returned from exile to Bangkok last Feb. 28, the status quo forces went into higher gear. Their coalition tightened, centering on PAD in the streets and the Democrat Party in Parliament.
Now that Abhisit is at the helm, this coalition will have its second chance not only to put down Thaksin for good but to usher in a political and social order from the past, which privileged their positions and interests. Whether the Oxford- educated Abhisit is a quintessentially status quo offspring or a leader who can wed the trappings of the recent past to the demands and expectations of the near future will be crucial to Thailand’s political maturation.
The new prime minister so far has managed to reinforce his government’s ties with the army, the Privy Council, the private sector, and PAD’s yellow-shirted supporters. The red-shirted United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) has not been placated in the same fashion. Many of these red shirts are supportive of Thaksin but some are just opposed to Establishment preferences.
The policy platform for reconciliation put in motion by Abhisit is a mix of Thaksin’s populism and the Thai king’s economic-sufficiency mantra espoused during the coup-appointed government.
Whether populism with a purportedly honest face will be sufficient to pacify the anger and frustration of the rural PPP and Thaksin supporters who are critical of the status quo will depend on its attendant sincerity. Abhisit will have to keep double standards to a minimum, and must be seen to uphold the law evenly, especially on the outstanding charges against PAD. If Abhisit acknowledges and reaches out to the poorer rungs of Thai society, the vast majority of the electorate located mostly in the populous north and northeast, he might be given the benefit of the doubt, allowing Thailand to move forward.
That may not be acceptable to the Bangkok-driven PAD. So far, PAD leadership has been satisfied by the Democrat-restored status quo. But PAD may aim to take the status quo to even older times — back to parliamentary appointments and restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms.
If Abhisit starts to promote change, as in amending the charter to provide more latitude to political parties and politicians, PAD is likely to oppose him. On the other hand, the UDD red shirts will challenge the Abhisit government’s legitimacy. They will mimic many of the antics carried out last year by PAD, but they will not get away with it in the same way.
This is the harsh reality of Thai democracy at present. An Establishment bias has set in. It permeates the workings of civil society, media, academia, business and virtually all echelons of Thai political life. Moreover, UDD is practically rudderless, beset by creeping fissures within and lacking the powerful and sustained financing and support that PAD enjoyed last year.
Thailand has thus arrived at another crossroads that will test the Establishment’s mettle. The force of history, underpinned by globalization and democratization, suggests that rising expectations and a growing political consciousness cannot be easily subdued or reversed once unleashed. While the Thai case so far has suggested otherwise, the final drama is still in the works.
Abhisit may last longer than the widely anticipated few months if he can bridge the PAD-UDD divide by keeping most of the yellow shirts on the side and catering to the demands and expectations of the red shirts.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. © 2006-2008 OpinionAsia (www.opinionasia.org)
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