Political paralysis looms for Thailand

Posted: 22 April 2007 1216 hrs

BANGKOK : Thailand is bracing for political paralysis as crises
loom over a new constitution and the fate of its main parties ahead of
elections later this year, analysts said.

The army-installed government was initially welcomed when the
military ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a September coup, with
the public hopeful for stability after months of street protests
demanding his ouster.

But the good feelings have faded as the government has come under
increasing criticism over a number of policy miscues, including its
economic management and an escalating insurgency in the kingdom’s
Muslim-majority south.

Anti-government protests have become more frequent and allies of
Thaksin – who has remained in self-exile abroad since the coup – plan
to rally against the government on Friday, with experts warning of
bigger demonstrations ahead.

“We are in a transitional period for Thai politics,” said political analyst Panitan Wattanayagorn.

“The political situation here in the next few months is very
fragile and quite unstable,” he said, citing uncertainty over
Thailand’s two biggest political parties and the new constitution,
drafted by a junta-appointed committee.

The Constitutional Court is set to rule on vote fraud charges
against Thaksin’s political party – Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) –
and the country’s main opposition Democrat Party on May 30.

If found guilty, the parties would be dissolved and the party
executives banned from politics for five years, meaning prominent
leaders could not run in December polls promised by the government.

Michael Nelson, politics lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn
University, said if an election went ahead after the dissolution of the
parties, Thailand would likely be governed by minor political players.

“The entire level of Thai political leadership would be sent to the
political wilderness. You would have parties without leadership…who
will be qualified to sit in the cabinet?” Nelson said.

Another potential crisis may come from the draft constitution,
which was unveiled last week, as the government scrapped the 1997
constitution following the September power-grab.

One of the more controversial clauses in the new charter is that
the Senate will be appointed, rather than elected as it was under the
1997 constitution.

The new constitution will go before Thailand’s first-ever
referendum in September, but activists are already calling for its
rejection, seeing it as an attempt to curtail the role of the
electorate.

Panitan said the constitutional referendum would also be seen as a
referendum on the junta and warned that a “no” vote could result in a
serious political crisis.

“The upcoming referendum is simply a verdict on the government. So
if the referendum does not pass, the prime minister may have to
resign,” he said, referring to army-backed Premier Surayud Chulanont, a
former general.

If the public turns down the new constitution in the referendum,
the junta could choose one of Thailand’s previous constitutions, make
amendments as they see fit and impose it without another referendum.

A rejection will likely delay elections.

“We may see serious political chaos in Thailand as well as a strong
confrontation between pro- and anti-junta groups,” said Ukrist
Pathmanand, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn.

But Panitan and Ukrist agreed that the country’s economic slump,
caused by post-coup political uncertainty, could pose a bigger threat
to the government.

“People are feeling very frustrated with this government,
especially business leaders, because of the slowing Thai economy,” said
Ukrist.

The government projected in March that the Thai economy would
expand just 4.0-5.0 percent in 2007, compared with 5.0 percent in 2006,
due to a slump in exports and sluggish private investment.

With no economy-boosting measures from the military-backed
government, investors are worried that the Bank of Thailand may revise
down its growth forecast to below 4.0 percent in 2007.

Thailand’s consumer confidence also remains at a five-year low following the ouster of Thaksin, a pro-business tycoon.

“Our economy is not that strong. If something goes wrong, like a
spike in oil prices, it may frustrate the public further,” Panitan
said. – AFP/ch

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