Thailand: Elections and the King

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December 05, 2007 20 51  GMT

Summary
Thailand’s revered king, who has stopped the country from toppling into chaos on numerous occasions, turned 80 Dec. 5. With just more than two weeks left until landmark elections, his services will be needed to referee multiple political dramas.

Analysis
Thailand’s revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, turned 80 Dec. 5. A critical figure for keeping Thai politics in balance with the power to make or break any political faction’s future with just a word, he frequently has prevented the country from toppling into chaos.

The Dec. 23 Thai elections will be noisy. The king’s services thus will be greatly in need during the run-up to the elections, which probably will deliver a coalition government — one with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s fingerprints all over it.

Though old and ailing, the Thai king looks set to be around when elections arrive Dec. 23. He is considered a near-divine authority on what is best for Thailand’s social well-being since much, if not all, of his life has been devoted to establishing social programs throughout Thailand. The monarch’s implicit approval was critical in legitimizing the current interim regime after Thailand’s September 2006 coup and in many of the present government’s attempts to weaken opposition groups.

These elections are important for Thailand since they will deliver the first elected government since former Prime Minister Thakin Shinawatra was ousted. They signal the delivery of the interim military government’s promise to return Thailand to true democratic rule.

Whether truly democratic or not, after more than a year of extreme political volatility, the majority of Bangkok citizens want these elections to be a success. They see the elections as essential if daily life and business is to ever return to the pre-coup norm. This public concern explains the government’s success at keeping its election timetable on track and securing public approval for the changes made in September to the nation’s constitution.

Even opposition political factions, most of whom saw the new constitution as a ploy by the Thai military to get itself re-entrenched in the Thai political scene, want the December elections as an opportunity to gain power. The regime has been surprisingly deft at using laws and administrative rules (for registering new political parties, for example) to coax factions back into old habits — namely, jostling among themselves to form coalitions. Meanwhile, most potential foreign investors are reading December’s elections as a barometer of the country’s future business environment.

The government has and will continue to use the courts to snip away at the top leadership of factions they do not like in an effort to weaken those not willing to align with the government’s interests. But not all is falling into place as they would have liked, since the government has yet to buy the implicit support of any of the biggest contenders to win the December election.

Recent polling results show the People Power Party — a self-proclaimed Thaksin-adopted party — and the Democrats, Thailand’s oldest political party made up of well-respected figures from the business/academic community, running neck-in-neck for dominance in the next government. Meanwhile, anti-Thaksin parties like Matchima Thippatai that the government may have been pinning its hopes on are starting to fall by the wayside due to internal squabbling.

Thaksin himself remains overseas, snapping up British football teams and keeping the Thai government on edge due to all the local and foreign media attention he gains. Recently retired military chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin also is waiting in the wings for the next new government to take office before making his first foray back into Thai politics.

Political noise, chaos and drama are typical of the Thai political cycle. In the face of all this, the king has been a central stabilizer for decades. His son and heir, however, has neither the track record nor the inclination to fill his father’s shoes. Thus, the aging king’s health and succession plans are more important to watch than the December elections.

Related Headlines
Thailand: A Palace Bombing and Discrediting Thaksin
May 07, 2007

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