Thailand at Stalemate

With Thailand’s emergency election over with a minimum of violence but a maximum of confusion, it appears the government’s opponents were successful in disrupting the polls just enough to prevent a decisive outcome. The Bangkok Post called it a “lose-lose” outcome in an editorial Monday.

The results won’t be known for weeks or months but it seems unlikely a new parliament can be convened after 438 of Bangkok’s 6,671 polling places and several constituencies in the south were denied the right to vote by anti-government protesters.

That leaves Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra weakened and vulnerable to the end game in her opponents’ apparent strategy: the use of the government bureaucracy and the courts to finish off her government and perhaps put an end to electoral democracy in Thailand for an indefinite period.

While Yingluck and her Pheu Thai party remain popular, she does not have enough strength in the armed forces to impose her will and any attempt to use her allies in the police to clear the streets of illegal protesters under an existing emergency decree could provoke a military backlash. The result is stalemate.

Having boycotted the polls and orchestrated the street protests that have roiled Bangkok in recent months, it appears that the Democrat Party and its business and royalist backers have given up all hope of beating the forces of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra at the polls. Instead, they have done all that they can to make any polls meaningless, while creating as much chaos as possible.

Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006, can thank his own hubris for creating the conditions that gave his opponents an opening for the crisis they wanted. He and his Pheu Thai allies (with Yingluck’s apparently reluctant consent) pushed forward a blanket amnesty bill late last year that would have forgiven thousands of corruption cases, including Thaksin’s own, thus clearing the way for him to come home from his self-imposed exile in Dubai.

When the foolish and ill-timed bill was passed in parliament, the outraged public reaction was immediate and heartfelt. Yingluck withdrew the bill but the damage was done and the Democrat’s had the opening they needed to create a crisis in the streets.

Yingluck played into their hands by dissolving parliament on December 9 and seeking a fresh mandate with a snap election.

“Suthep Thaugsuban [the protest leader and one-time Democrat politician] and his team took two years to prepare for this to happen," Jatuporn Prompan, a senior Pheu Thai member, told Reuters recently. "He was preparing with the support of a network of elite bureaucrats."

The protests, sustained by massive donations from numerous large businesses in Bangkok and backed by a combination of popular support among the middle classes and thugs providing muscle, created unease, harmed the economy and allowed Suthep’s calls for ill-defined reforms to appear reasonable.

Violence along the edges, some of which has been blamed on Suthep’s People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), claimed ten lives and caused hundreds of injuries in recent weeks, adding to a sense of an impending cataclysm.

Now the Democrats can use their control of the permanent bureaucratic machinery of government to finish the job. Thailand's anti-corruption commission has already launched an impeachment investigation into Yingluck’s role as head of a wasteful rice-pledging scheme that had a devastating impact on the treasury and has left unpaid farmers furious.

There are other cases in the Constitutional Court brought by the PDRC seeking to nullify Sunday’s polls. In addition, the Election Commission itself seemed to be more on the side of the Democrats than the government in the run-up to the polls.

Thaksin himself is said by sources to expect his sister to soon be out of a job. He is said to be supporting his long-time ally, the current foreign minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, to take over the leadership of the party should Yingluck be indicted.

There are at least two new groups of supposedly nonpartisan figures proposing a series of reforms as a way out of the crisis, but it remains to be seen how much traction they will gain. There is also the murky role of the monarchy.

It has long been presumed that the king is gravely ill and that a transition to a new monarch will be underway fairly soon. Inevitably, a new monarch will be weak and uncertain during a time of crisis and many analysts believe that the Bangkok establishment deeply fears having Thaksin and his forces in control of the country during that crucial period.

So is there a way forward? In the north and northeast, furious “Red Shirt” enemies of the Bangkok status quo are said to be ready to fight against any coup d’état, which means that while massive violence has been avoided so far, the nation remains on a razor’s edge. The Red Shirts, backed by Thaksin’s resources, would far outnumber any street heavies Suthep could muster and the prospect of pitched battles even against the army is not out of the question.

Meanwhile, the elite bureaucrats will likely push Yingluck out of the way relatively soon but that will neither give the country a government nor forge a consensus for a way forward.

For that to happen, a change will be needed in a mindset of confrontation. There appears no sign of that anytime soon.