New Thai Premier's Olive Branch

Thailand has a conciliatory new prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, who is the brother-in-law of the ousted premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is currently in exile in England. And that means while the new premier’s election ends days of uncertainty, it will not resolve the political crisis that has gripped the country for months.

Parliament overwhelmingly elected Somchai after the ruling People Power Party (PPP) appeared to be on the brink of splitting into several factions over his nomination. But the party’s whips managed to scotch the revolt, and Thailand’s new prime minister now starts what most analysts believe will only be a brief time in office.

The continuing political crisis, despite Somchai’s initial attempts to cool off the situation, is having a grim effect on the economy, with the Thai stock market having fallen by 30 percent over the past three months, the value of the baht at its lowest levels in nearly a year, and international tourists shunning what is usually Southeast Asia’s premier tourist attraction, providing around 6 percent of gross domestic product. International arrivals have skidded by a dramatic 70 percent and the Thai Hotels Association reports that occupancy has fallen by 40 percent. Other industries that profit from the tourist trade – food, entertainment, jewellery and handicrafts – are all suffering significant losses.

It was always clear that the party would close ranks behind Somchai, especially with Thaksin actively campaigning on his behalf on the phone from London. But unfortunately for Thailand, the new premier’s election is unlikely to ease the political tension as the protestors, predominantly from the umbrella group People’s Alliance for Democracy, are at war with the whole political system, and will not be satisfied with anything less than a new constitution. The motley group of businessmen, activists and academics involved in the PAD paint themselves as champions of a cleaner government and defenders of the monarchy. They advocate a return to an appointed government, claiming popular democracy is swayed by money – especially Thaksin’s billions.

Thailand’s new leader immediately signaled his intention to try to resolve the country’s current political crisis and promised to take a conciliatory approach towards the opposition – in parliament and on the streets.

“It is time for Thailand to reconcile. We do not hate each other, so we should not let hatred prevent us from tackling the immediate problems the country is facing,” he told reporters shortly after he was elected.

Everything about Somchai suggests he does want to start with a clean slate. Immediately after he was elected, he shook hands with the opposition Democrat leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, in another sign of compromise. His whole demeanor is in stark contrast to his coarse and irascible predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, who was forced from office last week when a court used a pretext to find him guilty of violating the constitution by accepting payment for hosting TV cooking shows.

By contrast, Somchai is urbane, intelligent, polite and softly-spoken. “Mr Somchai is a person who never speaks or does anything to divide society,” said Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, dean of the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida). “He is not like our previous prime minister, who always makes offensive comments about what he dislikes and disagrees with.”

This is Somchai’s first term as a member of parliament. Before entering politics, he had a long and distinguished career as a civil servant – first as a judge and later as the top government official in the justice and labour ministries. His experience and skills will make him a good negotiator and leader according to many analysts.

“He is certainly a policy professional, and that should stand him in good stead for the future,” Titinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told Asia Sentinel.

The new prime minister’s main objective will be to bring unity to the country, according to senior members of the ruling party. “Plugging rifts in society is the most important step that needs to be taken at present,” said the PPP former deputy leader, Yongyuth Tiyarpairat. “It’s time we found ways to reconcile and restore peace.”

But this will be no easy matter. Somchai’s election has done nothing to placate the protestors in the streets of the capital. “We really don't care. This is just a group of bandits choosing a new leader,” a PAD leader, Somsak Kosaisuk told reporters.

The fact that he is related by marriage to Thaksin, the real villain in Thai politics as far as the antigovernment protestors are concerned, will be a heavy cross to bear.

“Even if he is not actually beholden to his brother-in-law, he will be tainted and constrained by this fact,” Titinan said. “He will be vulnerable to personal abuse and accusations that will effectively limit his ability to act.”

The immediate problem remains the thousands of anti-government protestors, led by the PAD, who have been occupying the prime minister's official compound for the past three weeks demanding an end to the PPP government, no matter who they elect as prime minister. They believe Thaksin is continuing to pull the strings from abroad, and they are threatening to remain there until he and his influence are completely expunged from Thai politics.

“It’s a question of rule of law – the protestors are breaking the laws and as long as they remain in Government House, there is no rule of law in this country,” the former deputy prime minister in the Thaksin government, Chaturon Chaisang said in an interview. Most government parliamentarians also believe this situation is intolerable and must be stopped before the country can return to normal. But few are advocating direct action against the protestors by the security forces.

“There’s no smooth and legal solution,” Chaturon conceded. “We have to avoid violence at all cost as this is exactly what the protestors want – to give the military a pretext to intervene again.”

Some senior PPP members are now openly suggesting starting negotiations with the “conflicting parties” to try to resolve the current political deadlock. Somchai has the temperament and approach needed, according to many academic, businessmen and politicians alike.

“Even though Somchai is Mr Thaksin’s brother-in-law, I don’t think it should be a problem, he has his own way and is confident enough to the rule the country,” said Thanes Charoenmaung, a political scientist at Chiang Mai University. “But he must try to hold a constructive dialogue with the PAD – perhaps through intermediaries – if the current political stand-off is to be solved.”

But before Somchai considers what to do about the protestors, he now has to select a new cabinet and the government’s first real test will be what to do to boost the flagging economy. And worst of all, soaring food and fuel prices are also making many Thais increasingly resentful.

“What the new prime minister must now do is help solve the problem of peoples’ rising cost of living and restore business and investors’ confidence,” said Sombat Thamrongthanyawong of Nida. The problem is that this cannot only be effectively accomplished with an end to the political crisis – and there are no signs that this will indeed happen anytime soon.

Despite warnings from businessmen and even the country’s top general, Anupong Paochinda that the crisis is severely damaging Thailand’s international reputation, it is unlikely to be resolved soon.

“With the appointment of a new prime minister the PPP is simply trying to buy time,” said Professor Titinan Pongsudhirak. “The game plan is to last two or three months, pass the national budget, disperse the funds and lay the groundwork within the constituencies for the next election.”

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, the writing is probably on the wall for the PPP. The election commission has unanimously recommended that the party be disbanded and at least 10 top party officials, including Samak, be banned from politics for at least five years for electoral irregularities and vote-buying. The Constitutional Court is expected to decide on the case in the next two or three months, and is almost certain to accept the election commissioners’ conclusions.