ANALYSIS: Thai politics is a no-party scene this year


Posted
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Wed, 23 May 2007 08:10:00GMT

Bangkok –
Unpredictability has characterized Thai politics for decades, but this
year’s host of uncertainties has got even the most seasoned political
analysts scratching their heads. “This is the most confusing period in
Thai politics that I can remember,” admitted Chris Baker, co-author of
several books on the topic with his wife, academic Pasuk Phongpaichit.

One of great unknowns is whether or not Thailand’s two largest
political parties will be dissolved and their leaders barred from
politics for the next five years.

On May 30, the Constitutional Tribunal will decide the fates of the
Thai Rak Thai Party, founded by ousted prime minister Thaksin
Shinawatra, and the Democrats, the country’s oldest political party
which celebrated its 60th anniversary this year.

The two parties face charges of committing fraud during the April 2,
2006, general election, the results of which were annulled on May 8,
leaving Thailand in a political wilderness from which it has yet to
emerge.

Other questions looming on Thailand’s political horizon include whether
or not a nationwide referendum will reject the kingdom’s 18th attempt
at a constitution, whether there will be a general election by the end
of the year and whether the extremely popular but equally divisive
Thaksin will return from exile and if the military will stage a
counter-coup in an attempt to clear up, once again, all this political
uncertainty.

Much depends on the outcome of the May 30 Constitution Tribunal ruling.

If the tribunal decides to dissolve the Thai Rak Thai and Democrat
parties, street protests can be expected by the two parties’ followers,
which number about 14 million and 4 million, respectively.

If the tribunal decides not to dissolve the parties but to bar their
executives from politics for the next five years, that will raise other
questions.

“If they bar a significant number of politicians from politics,
questions will arise about how meaningful the next election will be,”
said Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat party.

While it is clear that the Thai military do not want to see the
political comeback of Thaksin, whom they deposed with a coup last
September 19, it is less clear to what extent they intend to throttle
the political party system.

Judging by the first draft of the new constitution by a
military-appointed committee, Thailand’s political parties are set to
lose a lot of the political clout they won under the last 1997
constitution, deemed the country’s most democratic charter to date.

The 1997 constitution was scrapped with the coup.

Many clauses in the newly drafted charter are designed to prevent the
emergence of a strong premier and one powerful political party, as
happened under Thaksin and his populist Thai Rak Thai party between
2001 to 2006.

“This is an elitist constitution,” said political analyst Thitinan
Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of
Security and International Studies. “The spirit of this constitution is
to put down Thaksin and the Thaksin regime or anything like Thaksin
again.”

But there are indications that the charter will be significantly
amended by the time it is presented for a referendum in August or
September this year.

For instance, an amendment committee has already dropped a
controversial clause that would have created an “emergency council,” an
appointed body to resolve future political crises, and it is likely to
change a clause bringing back appointed, as opposed to elected
senators, as was stipulated under the 1997 charter.

If the new constitution weakens Thailand’s political parties too much,
the politicians are likely to mobilize their followers to reject it in
the referendum.

“Any attempt to make the elections not meaningful, and to restore the
rule of the bureaucracy, will only invite trouble. That’s the bottom
line,” said Abhisit.

When Thai politicians say “the bureaucracy,” they include the military,
who basically ran the country from 1932, when they overthrew the
absolute monarchy, until 1992, when a brutal army crackdown on
pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok finally ousted the generals from
the political scene.

“They have been trying to burrough their way back for the past 15 years
and got nowhere until this coup, and then suddenly they are back,” said
Baker in reference to the Thai military.

Over those 15 years, however, much has changed in Thailand, and the
“bureaucrats” may be in for a surprise if they force their hand too
much.

“Public expectations are much higher,” said Thitinan. “People are
smarter, more sophisticated. They have had ten years of the 1997
constitution and five years of Thaksin, so they have had a foretaste of
the things they can get.”

Democrat leader Abhisit, who may well lose his job this month, agreed.

“The one certainty is you can’t roll things back,” said Abhisit. “One way or the other we will return to elections very soon.

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