Abhisit Consolidates his Position

After three weeks of demonstrations that have included the gory spectacle of protestors spattering their own blood on public buildings, Thailand's political stalemate continues. The red-shirted supporters of the fugitive ousted Premier Thaksin Shinawatra have vowed not to give up until Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva steps down and calls for a fresh election.

But in rally after rally, the red-shirts have failed to unseat the 45-year-old prime minister, who has responded with calm in the face of continuing provocation by the frustrated Red Shirt protesters. Is Abhisit becoming invincible? In negotiations with the Red Shirts over the weekend, he gave away nothing to the protesters. He refused to give a commitment to fresh elections and questioned the need for them. All he would say was that "we hear what you say," and that further negotiations would be necessary. He continued to insist that he was democratically elected. Negotiations finally broke off with the frustrated Red Shirts demanding that Parliament be dissolved within two weeks.

The British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit came to power in December 2008, only after the People's Power Party, the reincarnation of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party, was forced to dissolve by the Constitutional Court. Thaksin and the red-shirted members have since condemned the way political power was arranged under the leadership of Abhisit's Democrat Party as a parliamentary coup.

Thus Abhisit began his premiership amid fierce opposition from the Thaksin camp. Many scholars, including me, anticipated that Abhisit's reign would be short-lived. I even predicted that Abhisit would remain in power no longer than three months. I was wrong.

Abhisit has been leading the government for more than a year. Throughout this tumultuous period, Thaksin and the Red Shirts, along with the Thai media, have consistently projected an image of a weak and inexperienced leader who lacks charisma. They say that he owes favors to too many people including the military and the palace, that his power has been restricted and that he is a mere puppet of the so-called amataya or aristocrat elites.

Probably the negative image has been manufactured in order to cloak the growing fear among the Red Shirts that the Abhisit of today is not the Abhist of yesteryear. Through the continuing series of crises, Abhisit has not only not fallen but indeed, since the breakout of violence in Bangkok on the Thai New Year day on 13 April 2009, his popularity has continued to rise, aided by the miscalculation of the Red Shirts, which broke up a meeting of ASEAN leaders in Pattaya and forced them to flee. At the peak of the Thai-Cambodian conflict last year in which Abhisit played the nationalist card against Prime Minister Hun Sen over the 11th Century Preah Vihear temple, which both countries claim, he became a national darling who was eager to stand up against this challenging neighbor.

Undeniably Abhisit has become a much stronger leader over time. Sources inside the government say that at various opportunities he has refused to take orders from the military and even from the palace. He is not really a royalist. What Abhisit is defending is nothing but his own power position. He has made his own decisions and only sought advice from a few trusted aides. Although his party relies much upon loyalty from its coalition partners, Abhisit also often exploits his power position to manipulate his relationship with them.

While Abhisit claims to have maintained good relations with the military, he is now said to be handling security matters himself. Rumors of a rift between Abhisit and Commander-in-chief General Anupong Paochinda are likely to be true. There have been reports about Thaksin attempting to cause further friction between the two men. It is however important to note that the general perception of Abhisit having to kowtow to the military, which helped stage-manage the current government under the Democrat Party, is somewhat misleading.

Indeed, the military needs Abhisit as much as he needs the military. The military would become vulnerable without the Abhisit government. So far, the military has been able to access politics through the channel made available by the Abhisit government.

During the past months, signs of a new, stronger Abhisit have become apparent. He has proven that he was not at all under pressure from the Red Shirt demonstrators. Threatened by opponents who wanted to create a situation of ungovernability, Abhisit stood firm on his own conditions. He said that he would enter into negotiation with the Red Shirts only if they complied with his rules: he would not resign and would not discuss Thaksin's amnesty. From this viewpoint, Abhisit was not really serious about reconciling with the Red Shirts despite the gesture to negotiate.

The fact that he has accepted the invitation of US President Barack Obama to visit Washington from 12-14 April, despite the volatile political situation at home, also confirms that he is confident of his political control and that the military is still on his side. More importantly, his government didn't hesitate to take advantage of Obama's invitation. Abhisit believes that this invitation can be construed as the United States having full trust in his government and recognizing its legitimacy.

Abhisit might be enjoying his newfound confidence. But this does not automatically mean that he may win the next election should he agree with the remote possibility of the dissolution of parliament. He has yet not succeeded in winning hearts and minds of those in remote regions, especially in Thaksin's strongholds. He still has many hurdles to overcome.

Meanwhile, he must be aware that being too strong and too confident could have left him in the cold. He is at risk of being isolated not only by his opponents, but also by the Bangkok elites who brought his political ambitions to fruition in the first place. He has become a nimble player in a delicate game.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies