Thailand’s referendum | The long march back to the barracks

Aug 23rd 2007
From The Economist print edition

There may be such a thing as a good coup; Thailand’s was certainly not one

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FROM Pakistan to Fiji, from Bangladesh to Thailand, the men in green are finding what they should have known all along: that it is far easier for soldiers to topple an elected government than to manage their own exit from the front of the political stage. Many generals, however, never learn that lesson. What is surprising in Thailand, which on August 19th held a referendum designed to smooth their exit (see article), is that so many of the country’s elite cheered them on when they staged their coup a year ago. Critics of the coup—such as this newspaper—were denounced for misunderstanding both the depth of the evil of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister they deposed, and the wonders of Thailand itself.

We had no fondness for Mr Thaksin: the human-rights abuses perpetrated by the security forces on his watch were deplorable and some of his nationalist economic policies were loopy. But he had a mandate. His Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party won 375 of the 500 lower-house seats in the last valid election, in 2005. Democracy produces some nasty leaders. But that is no reason for ditching it. Even the best-intentioned coups leave an ugly mess, such as that now facing Thailand.

In the referendum voters approved the new constitution the generals want to foist on them. But it is difficult to see the vote as a ringing endorsement of the new charter itself, let alone as a vindication of last September’s coup. Turnout was low; the winning majority even lower; and an unknown share of those who voted yes will have done so only to move the country on towards the elections promised for December, after which, it is hoped, the soldiers will quit politics.

The charter is designed to prevent the re-emergence of an elected strongman like Mr Thaksin. To this end, it contains some unobjectionable measures, such as reducing the number of parliamentarians needed to call a vote of no confidence in the prime minister and strengthening the powers of the national human-rights commission. Public criticism forced the army to drop some egregiously undemocratic clauses, such as the provision for a “national crisis council”, including army officers, to take charge in any future political conflict. However, some dubious bits remain: almost half of the Senate will be appointed by a panel of judges and bureaucrats; and the coupmakers themselves are granted a blanket amnesty.

Even with the “crisis council” expunged from the constitution, the spectre of the army whipping up a crisis to justify seizing power again has not quite gone away. Now that the constitution has passed, the generals may have another go at pushing through a draconian security law, giving the army sweeping new powers to override the elected government and make arrests, search homes without warrants and impose curfews and censorship. All this in the name of combating threats to “internal security”, defined so broadly that the army could treat pretty well any dissent as such.

Built-in weakness

In May a constitutional tribunal created by the junta found the TRT guilty of electoral fraud and dissolved it. But the charter-drafters wanted to make it harder for any other dominant majority party to emerge in future. For that reason, the new constitution tweaks the voting system in favour of smaller parties. This is ironic: the whole point of Thailand’s last democratic constitution, passed in 1997, was to free the country from the cycle of weak and unstable coalitions and frequent coups. The danger is now that the charter will succeed too well and Thailand will be back to weak governments.

This would suit the military-royalist elite. They could go back to running the country from behind the scenes. But there is a risk of stagnation. Thailand’s economy is already growing slower than its neighbours’ in part because of the continuing political uncertainty. A fractious coalition government, or one run by bumbling generals, might make things worse.

The new constitution is Thailand’s 18th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 and, sadly, may not be its last. The army may have doomed Thailand to further cycles of constitution, crisis and coup. The next flashpoint may not be far off. Hundreds of Mr Thaksin’s former MPs have regrouped under the banner of the People’s Power Party (PPP). Since Mr Thaksin and his populist policies retain wide support, the PPP may enter the election campaign as front-runner. But the generals will surely do their damnedest to thwart a Thaksinite restoration. If they fight dirty, the relatively small anti-junta protests seen so far could quickly swell. The road back to the barracks is, as ever, strewn with hazards.


Not a vote for the generals

Aug 23rd 2007 | BANGKOK
From The Economist print edition

What will Thailand’s generals do if Thaksin Shinawatra’s supporters look like winning the coming election?

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THAILAND’S army chiefs seem to have overestimated their popularity, as military dictators often do. They staged a massive propaganda effort to get people to turn out and vote in August 19th’s referendum—the country’s first ever—and to say yes to a new constitution written by a military-appointed panel. Yet the turnout was a tepid 58%. And though the constitution was approved, the yes vote was just 57%. Some of those voting yes will have done so only because the passing of the constitution paves the way for elections, promised for December. They were voting to hasten the end of the military dictatorship, not to express support for it.

The referendum showed that Thailand remains deeply divided: in the poor and populous north-east, a stronghold of Thaksin Shinawatra, the elected prime minister deposed in last September’s coup, 62% voted to reject the charter. In the south, a stronghold of the Democrats, the main opposition in the last elected parliament, the yes vote was 88%. In recent months, graft-busting panels appointed by the military have begun to bring corruption cases against Mr Thaksin, who is exiled in Britain. In the week leading up to the referendum, the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for him, for failing to appear at a hearing for alleged corruption over his wife’s purchase of a chunk of prime state-owned land in Bangkok. But the high rejection rate for the generals’ constitution in Mr Thaksin’s heartlands suggests that his popularity has largely survived the efforts to discredit him.

After the referendum on August 19th, General Surayud Chulanont, the prime minister, insisted that elections would “definitely” be held in late December. But three days later General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the army chief, felt obliged to deny rumours, which had caused a stockmarket slump, that some sort of further coup was in the works.

Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party was dissolved in May by a Constitutional Tribunal set up by the junta, for misdeeds in a general election held in 2006 and subsequently annulled. He and over 100 of his cronies were barred from politics for five years. However, more than 200 former TRT parliamentarians subsequently joined the obscure People’s Power Party (PPP). Their numbers comfortably exceed the 96 seats that the Democrats won in the last valid election, in 2005 (compared with TRT’s 375). So the PPP may enter the coming election campaign as frontrunner.

The prospect of a reborn Thaksinite party leading the next government is surely not one the generals would relish. The plan, it is assumed, was that after TRT’s demise Thailand would return to the weak and short-lived coalition governments that had preceded its rise to power in 2001. Several changes in the new constitution—such as the merging of single-seat constituencies into larger ones in which the second- and third-placed candidates would also win seats—seem designed to give lesser parties more of a chance and thus increase the likelihood of unstable multi-party coalitions.

If so, the royalist-military elite who staged the coup would be able to return to exerting influence behind the scenes, as they did in pre-Thaksin times. General Sonthi has even been flirting with the idea of standing for parliament himself, hoping to be invited, in the absence of an alternative leader, to be prime minister at the head of such a coalition government.

However, if the PPP won hundreds of seats and emerged as the mainstay of the next government, these hopes would be dashed. Even more alarming for the generals, the PPP has been courting Samak Sundaravej, a fiery right-winger and former governor of Bangkok, to be its leader. Mr Samak is a fierce critic of General Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister who is chief adviser to King Bhumibol and, it is widely assumed, was the driving force behind the coup. By a convenient coincidence, this week the auditor-general’s office suddenly announced plans to bring charges against Mr Samak over four-year-old corruption allegations.

In the generals’ worst nightmares, the Thaksinites win control of the government and use their power to fix things so that Mr Thaksin gets off his corruption charges and his ban from politics is lifted. Then they amend the just-approved constitution to remove the amnesty that it grants to the coup-makers. It seems unlikely that the army will let this happen.

A compromise is still imaginable, for instance if a PPP-led coalition chooses a more emollient prime minister. One name being mentioned a lot in Bangkok is that of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, an elderly former general who is said to have reasonably good relations with both Mr Thaksin and General Prem, and a strong desire to return to politics. Mr Chavalit, however, had a disastrous stint as prime minister ten years ago. His government badly mishandled Thailand’s financial crisis, which soon spread to much of the rest of Asia.

Several more months, at least, of uncertainty lie ahead. By the time the election is held—assuming it goes ahead on schedule—Thailand’s political agony will have dragged on for two years. This has taken a toll on the economy, which is expected to grow by only 4% this year, much less than the rest of South-East Asia. Even in this respect, the generals cannot boast that they have done better than the politicians.

Thailand’s referendum | The long march back to the barracks |



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