Thai Political Beat Goes On

Never mind elections, the fate of Thaksin’s proxy party could
be decided, yet again, by Thailand’s
royalist judges and generals

Thaksin
Thailand’s
proxy war between loyalists to deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Bangkok’s royalist elite
is stirring once again, with the outcome as uncertain as ever.

Despite the fact that Thaksin’s popularity had soared to
record heights in early 2005, royalist generals managed to oust him from power
in a 2006 coup. After 15 months of bumbling military rule, Thaksin’s allies in
the People Power Party surged back to power with a decisive win in elections
last December. Yet their grip is tenuous.

Two cases that could eventually lead to the party’s
dissolution will come before Thailand’s
Supreme Court ‑ home turf for royalists.  While the PPP – and before that Thaksin’s
now-banned Thai Rak Thai Party – have had a trump card in due to unassailable political
support in the populous rural northeast, the anti-Thaksin forces have countered
with judges and soldiers. If things play out as they have over the past two
years, PPP’s election victories will be undermined by coups or court decisions
to ban the party, which could in turn be followed by another election victory
by friends and relatives of the banned Thaksin loyalists.

The PPP is attempting to break this cycle by seeking quickly
to change certain clauses in the military-drafted constitution that make it
very easy to dissolve political parties. This has sparked a backlash from the
same elements that tried to oust Thaksin a few years ago, including the anti-Thaksin
interest group People’s Alliance
for Democracy, led by publisher Sondhi Limthongkul.

The options for the anti-Thaksin side also carry risks, as a
coup or court decision to ban the PPP could spark social unrest. Any such move
would have to be carefully calculated, and the royalists would rather hand
governance over to the pro-establishment Democrat Party instead of letting the
military take the reins again. The royalists hoped to do this in December’s
election, but they couldn’t muster enough votes to unlock Thaksin’s grip over
the electorate.

The conflict will simmer under the surface for the time
being. The real power brokers ‑Thaksin and the royalists heavyweights ‑ will
let the proxy power brokers — Prime Minister Samak Sundarevej and the Democrat
Party — trade blows. But when push comes to shove, the big guys will call the
shots.

Thaksin spent 18 months in exile but now moves freely in and
out of the country. He says he's out of politics, although he is adept at
staying in the public eye.  One week he’s
off to England to try and
convince Brazilian star Ronaldhino to join his Manchester City Premier League
football club, and the next he is back in Thailand greeting top businessmen.
This week he hosted an economic forum featuring Indian billionaire Lakshmi
Mittal, chief executive of steel giant ArcelorMittal.

The PPP has also reinstated Thaksin’s populist programs,
helping to firm up his rural base in the event of another unexpected election.
In addition, it has realigned elements of the bureaucracy and the police force
to fall under its influence. 

But getting through the courts is another story. Like the
military, judges in Thailand
are traditionally aligned with royalist elements, and previously they played a
crucial role in setting the stage for the coup.

This week King Bhumibol Adulyadej named three more people to
his 19-member Privy Council: Surayud Chulanont, a former army chief who left
the Privy Council after the coup to become the military-appointed prime
minister; and two former Supreme Court presidents, Charnchai Likhitjitta and
Supachai Phungam. They join Santi Thakral, who was named to the advisory body
in 2005, and former top judge Atthaniti Disathaamnari, who joined the council
last year. This means that of the last five appointments to the council, four have
been former presidents of the top court.

The moves are significant given that Thaksin was once seen
to peddle his own influence over the courts, most glaringly in 2001 when the Constitutional Court
acquitted him in a narrow 8-7 vote of failing to properly disclose his assets,
a move that preserved his premiership. Yet ever since the king instructed
judges in April 2006 to clean up the legal mess stemming from a boycotted
election earlier that month, the courts have moved in lockstep with the palace,
even when legal experts cried foul.

In defending the judiciary’s jump into the political arena,
Charnchai said that judges must be focused on “justice” instead of the “letter
of the law.”

“But most practitioners of the law tend to lose sight of
that and become fixated on what they’ve been taught,” he said, according to local
media.

Like judges, privy councilors are supposed to stay “above
politics.” But also like judges, that’s not the case in reality. Privy Council
President Prem Tinsulanonda, the former army chief and prime minister, was
widely credited with orchestrating the coup that brought the military to power
in 2006. This belief was furthered when the military appointed privy councilor
Surayud as interim prime minister.

“In the past five to six years, the council
has moved to a new level of overt political intervention in the context of the
tensions that developed between the palace and the Thaksin government between
2001-2006,” Paul Handley, author of the highly-regarded book The King Never Smiles, wrote in an
academic paper presented at a Thai Studies conference in January.

The latest appointments reveal that the rift
between the palace and Thaksin’s allies remains. Handley writes that Prem has
recruited judicial and national security experts to allow an “assertive Privy
Council” to go toe-to-toe with the PPP-led government.

The rubber will hit the road later this year.
If the PPP can’t change the laws in time, its fate will be in the hands of the
Supreme Court. If the past is any prologue, that doesn’t bode well for
Thaksin’s allies.

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