Thai Political Beat Goes On

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.