Thailand: edge of an abyss?


January 19-25, 2008


This weekend could see the deepening of a political crisis that began two years ago with mass street protests against former billionaire telecoms tycoon and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and culminated nine months later in a military coup.

Over the next few days, the country faces:

  • the end of formal state mourning for the king’s sister on Friday (January 18);
  • a Supreme Court ruling on whether or not the People Power Party (PPP) — closely linked to Thaksin — should be dissolved;
  • an announcement about the composition of a six-party coalition government on Friday that will take around 320 of the 480 House of Representatives (parliament) seats; and
  • the reconvening of parliament on Tuesday (January 22), one month after the election, in accordance with the constitution.

Lull before the storm?

The weeks following the December 23 general elections, in which the PPP failed to win an overall majority by less than ten seats, were widely expected to be characterised by feverish and destabilising political theatre.

Yet the death of the Thai king’s eldest sister on January 2 muted overt political bargaining as the country entered a 15-day period of national mourning. As no party can afford to show any sign of disrespect to the monarchy, this interregnum acted as a buffer between emotions unleashed by the elections and efforts to resolve the country’s corrosive political crisis.

PPP still dominant

The principal weapon wielded by the traditional Thai elite who unleashed its loyalists in the army against Thaksin and his allies in September 2006 has, so far, taken the form of legal measures. The present and 18th constitution since the military removed the absolute monarchy in 1932 — each coup was marked by a new constitution as plotters seek cover from the consequences of their actions — mandated the country’s Election Commission (EC) the power to assess whether successful candidates gained their seats without breaching electoral rules.

Since the results were announced, the EC has been busy handing out yellow and red cards in the manner of a football referee to poll winners deemed to have transgressed, usually by trying to buy votes or invoking the legally banned Thaksin. The PPP, unsurprisingly, has received the most cards, whittling away its lead, but not enough to threaten is position as dominant party.  

Further, an MP from the Democrat party, a weak second in the polls, lodged a suit in the Supreme Court accusing the PPP as serving as a proxy for Thaksin and his banned Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party. If the Supreme Court rules the PPP is a TRT clone, the party could be dissolved and its leadership barred from public life for five years.

A shallow, torpid klong

This flurry of legal activity has left Thailand poised either on the edge of an abyss or the muddy banks of a shallow, torpid klong -– the ubiquitous canals that serve as the irrigation and transport capillaries of the rice-growing country around Bangkok. Which of these scenarios will play out — instability and possible violent unrest or stoical fatalism and apathy – – will almost certainly be clearer at the end of what promises to be a tense and probably chaotic long weekend.

Once the dust has settled, the most probable outcome will be a weak coalition government incapable of sustaining itself and lacking the authority or resources to threaten the previous regime. While this may be of comfort to the generals and their patrons, it will leave Thailand facing deeper and unresolved domestic political divisions amid a complex and deteriorating global economic environment.

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