Oct 9th 2008
From the Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire
Yet more violence threatens Thailand’s political stability
On October 7th at least two people were killed and around 400 were injured during clashes between riot police and anti-government protestors in central Bangkok. The fresh outbreak of violence further darkens the already dim outlook for political stability in Thailand.
The unrest broke out when police attempted to break up a parliamentary blockade by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), an alliance of civic groups which claims that the current government is a vehicle for Thaksin Shinawatra—a former prime minister forced from office in the September 2006 coup—and his allies to rule by proxy. The police ultimately succeeded in clearing a path for lawmakers to enter the parliamentary building, but the legislature’s special session was cut short and the prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, reportedly had to be evacuated by helicopter.
The bloodshed has already had significant political ramifications, prompting the resignation of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a recently appointed deputy prime minister who had been brought in to spearhead the efforts of the People Power Party (PPP)-led government to negotiate with the PAD. The violence may also shore up the PAD’s popular support, which had been eroding as voters grew weary of political instability and its increasingly serious impact on the economy. If the government’s response to the protests is seen as too forceful, sympathy for the PAD could once again galvanise larger-scale protests against the government.
Any lasting solution to the political crisis will require finding a way to bridge the country’s deep division between the royalist bureaucratic elite and the urban middle class on one side and pro-Thaksin forces and the rural masses on the other. This will be exceedingly difficult as long as the pro-Thaksin PPP (or it successor, in the event that it is dissolved because of electoral fraud committed by one its former members) remains in the picture. Even if Somchai were to choose to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections, any government that were formed after a new election would inevitably contain pro-Thaksin factions, which would continue to have the backing of the rural masses. The PAD’s anti-democratic solution to the conflict—to reduce the representation of the rural majority by switching to a mostly appointed legislature—hardly represents a political step forwards.
There is a risk that escalating violence could prompt the military into intervening and taking direct control as it did in September 2006. However, military leaders continue to rule out such action. Further violence may also leave the way open for the tried-and-tested option of royal intervention, under which the king could call for the formation of a national unity government. But the depth of antipathy between the PPP and the parliamentary opposition is such that a government of this nature would have great difficulty remaining stable. No matter what is the next twist in Thailand’s political crisis, yet more turmoil is almost certainly on the way.
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