Will Thailand now be able to regain stability as an advanced Southeast Asian democracy? The nation’s political pendulum on Monday swung against forces loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
After days of political maneuvering that began earlier this month to cobble together a new ruling coalition, the opposition Democrat Party secured enough support to prevail over the pro-Thaksin forces. On Monday, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, 44, was elected the new prime minister of Thailand by the lower house of parliament.
This spelled the first comeback in seven years and 10 months for the Democrats, who twice held power during the 1990s.
These years have been characterized by a bitter political struggle between the pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin forces. The former is supported mainly by farmers and low-income constituents in the rural northeast while the latter represents urban middle-class and wealthier constituents in and around Bangkok as well as the nation’s business community with their vested interests.
Two years have already elapsed since Thaksin was ousted in the September 2006 military coup. But the animosity between the two camps has since intensified to the point of creating a deep rift in society. The new prime minister’s foremost priority is to try to heal the antagonism and hostility and restore political stability through national reconciliation.
But Abhisit himself must know better than anyone how daunting a challenge this will be.
The military pulled the strings behind the scenes to anoint Abhisit. But since the new administration has not been popularly elected, one can hardly vouch for its legitimacy. Under the basic rules of democracy, Abhisit should dissolve the national assembly and call a general election if he is to seek a mandate from voters.
But few people in Thailand expect Abhisit to dissolve the national assembly immediately, since all general elections over the last few years have been won by the Thaksin camp. The anti-Thaksin parties failed to win a majority even in the general election of last December.
Thailand’s credibility has been shattered in the international community. The weeklong siege of Bangkok’s two airports from late November by the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) stranded many foreign tourists, including Japanese, and affected foreign companies operating in Thailand.
There are also concerns about the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been playing a vital role in keeping the country together. The monarch turned 81 on Dec. 5 but did not give his customary pre-birthday address to the nation this year.
Unless the Thai government is able to regain its trust at home and abroad and reassure everyone, Japanese businesses in Thailand will have to re-examine their long-term strategies. The Japanese government ought to convey this concern to Abhisit.
We ask the new prime minister to take bold initiatives. We want him to fight poverty in the northeast to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, and to shun favoritism in the appointment of anti-Thaksin people to government posts while advancing dialogue with the Thaksin forces.
The government and the people of Thailand also need to engage in open debate on the role of the monarchy in politics to ensure the establishment of their democracy over the long term. The Thais cannot secure political stability if they keep relying on the king to intervene in times of crisis.
Thailand is a valued diplomatic partner of Japan. We hope Thailand will come out of this confusion as soon as possible.
–The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 16(IHT/Asahi: December 17,2008)