Thailand's Done Deal: Back to the Future

It’s a done deal: the Democrats are set to form the next Thai government, a phoenix rising from the ashes of anarchy and unrest. But their newfound position – changing their opposition benches for seats in the government after eight years in the wilderness -- signals a return to a past of unstable coalition governments rather than a brave new political world.

Certainly, if it happens, the new government is unlikely to resolve the country’s ongoing political tensions. The Red Shirts who form the spear-carriers for the now-disbanded People’s Power Party have vowed a massive rally Saturday with their leader in absentia, Thaksin Shinawatra, planning to phone in from whatever country he is sheltering in at the moment. The pro-Thaksin Puea Thai or ‘For Thais Party” is now in its third incarnation after being put out of business twice by pro-royalist figures. First known as Thai Rak Thai, then People Power Party, it still remains a formidable force with strong backing from the countryside.

A Democrat-led coalition may not be the panacea for Thailand’s political problems that its vocal advocates seem to believe. First of all it is a solution that reeks of manipulation brought about by a judicial-military coup orchestrated by the powerful traditional elite – the business community, the bureaucracy, the military and the palace – that tacitly if not actively supported the euphemistically named People’s Alliance for Democracy and the downfall of governments loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra that were legitimately elected by Thai voters.

Although the Democrat leaders remain upbeat that they have the necessary numbers in parliament to form the next government, the reality is that nothing in Thai politics is certain, even when it seems to be. This time only the parliamentary vote later this week can decide the issue – and even then there may still be surprises in store.

That said, Thailand may be slowly slipping towards a solution to the country’s current political crisis which may allow a let-up to the unrest that had threatened to erupt into civil war. The PAD had effectively brought the country to a standstill, occupying Government House since early August and then effectively cutting the country off from the outside world when they laid siege to the country’s two main airports in Bangkok two weeks ago.

So now the country’s two main parliamentary parties – the opposition Democrats and the Puea Thai both continue to desperately try to form coalition governments with the support of the minor parties. In the past few days there has been feverish horse-trading behind the scenes as the key parties involved try to attract enough MPs to their side.

“It’s a very fluid situation at present with tonnes of money being promised to politicians for their vote,” said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor at the English-daily newspaper The Nation. “As much as Bt40 million [US$1.13 million] is passing hands for one MP,” he told Asia Sentinel. “But if it produces a stable Democrat-led government, Thailand can only benefit.”

Thailand was plunged into a political crisis last week when the constitutional court disbanned the ruling PPP and barred its leaders, including the Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from politics for five years. Although a caretaker Prime Minister, Chavarat Charnvirakul, was immediately appointed, it created a power vacuum, with Thailand effectively left without a government.

In the meantime, Thailand’s business community is calling for the political parties to sort out the void as quickly as possible and make it a priority to restart the economy and restore Thailand’s international image, after anti-government protests closed the country’s main international airport for a week stranding more than 350,000 tourists.

The Democrats say they are very confident that when parliament re-opens they will be forming the next government, even though they only have a little over a third of the seats themselves. One or two MPs defected directly to the Democrats – including a former PPP MP from Bangkok who realized the tide at least in the capital city the tide had turned against both Thaksin and the street protesters. But deals have also been done with several other factions and parties – including some that supported the PPP in the last government.

“The new coalition is very firm and we will be leading the next government,” Democrat spokesman, Buranaj Smutharaks told Asia Sentinel. “This will be good for Thailand, and we hope to get the country back on track as quickly as possible.”

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The economy, especially the tourist industry, restoring international confidence and providing leadership to ASEAN as the president of the regional bloc, will be the main concerns, he added.

But the Democrats are relying on more than 30 MPs who were previously members of the PPP but so far have refused to join the new Puea Thais to form the new coalition government. This group is known as the “Friends of Ne Win” – because of their loyalty to a local political boss from the country’s northeastern region. So far they have promised to back the Democrat leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva as the new PM.

The break with the PPP was painful, one of the MPs defecting to the Democrats’ side, Boonchong Wongtraitrat acknowledged. “But the country and the people can no longer be held hostage [by the conflict],” he said. “The country cannot waste time and watch its reputation plunge further in the eyes of the world.”

But most analysts believe the defecting group’s loyalty is far from certain. They may yet extract a high price for their support, or even waiver with the right inducements. Ne Win, their leader, was banned from politics, along with the former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, when the Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved by the constitutional court in 2007. He was once a staunch supporter of the former premier.

Ne Win may be only posturing to gain a greater advantage in whatever government is formed, according to some analysts. Thaksin's ex-wife Pojaman flew back to Thailand on Friday night. Although her spokesman insists she has returned for personal and rather political reasons, others say she has returned to shore up the faithful. She was given a three-year jail term in July after being found guilty of tax evasion, but left the country while on bail, after filing an appeal.

“Thaksin has stepped up pressure on his old ally,” Kavi said. “That’s why his former wife has returned to Thailand -- her main purpose is to bring the wayward MPs back into the fold, no matter what it costs.”

Thaksin and Pojaman divorced last month in what was seen as a strategic move to protect her and the couple's assets, and to pave the way for the former leader's return to active politics. The multi-millionaire tycoon remains a key figure in Thai politics, even in his self-imposed exile abroad. The leading members of the pro-Thaksin party regularly seek his advice.

“He’s constantly consulted on political strategy and what steps to take next,” said a senior source close to the party. “Unfortunately he’s the only people are listening to,” he said.

The pro-Thaksin loyalists are as confident as the Democrats are that Puea Thai can form the next government.

“Our former coalition partners will join us. We now have enough votes,” Kanawat Wasinsungworn, the deputy leader of Puea Thai, told journalists Monday. They are undeterred by their opponents’ apparent certainty that they have out-maneuvered them. Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother in law who was ousted as prime minister by the constutional court last Tuesday, has advised the party to put on a brave face no matter what.

“What has happened is just the first round,” he told party faithful on Sunday. “Boxing has 12 rounds, and there are many more rounds to go.”

“The party is also considering whether dissolving parliament and calling a snap poll,” according to a leading pro-Thaksin politican, Jatuporn Promphan, one of the leaders of the pro-government protest movement – the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) – who wore red shirts to distinguish themselves from their opposition in the streets – the Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who wear yellow shirts to signify their support for the King and country.

Snap polls may yet be the path the Thaksinites choose, especially if Ne Win’s bloc cannot be convinced to return to the fold. While the constitution does not expressly forbid an acting prime minister from dissolving parliament and calling new elections, many legal experts believe it is counter to the spirit of the charter. But it may be the best solution – more than one Thai in every four supports dissolving parliament immediately and holding new elections as a way of resolving the current political crisis, according to an opinion poll published a few days ago.

Ironically the powerful army chief, Anupong Paojinda, also recommended this course of action two weeks ago on the eve of Somchai’s return from abroad. Last week the Democrats also favored fresh elections to help ‘clear the air’. “It would give the country a breathing space from the conflict, and allow us to have a fresh start,” Korn Chatikavanij, the Democrats’ deputy leader told Asia Sentinel at the time.

A week is a long time in politics – and everyone now seems to be looking to a Democrat-led government to provide Thailand with a new start. The business community is certainly backing this solution. “The Democrats should be given an opportunity to form a government when the previous government is no longer legitimate,” the chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce Pramon Suthivong told journalists earlier this week.

Senior generals have been actively lobbying behind the scenes in support of Democrat-led government of national unity, according to sources close to the army chief. “A lot of pressure was especially put on the smaller parties to join the Democrat coalition,” a former military officer told Asia Sentinel. Ne Win’s supporters have also made no secret of the fact that talks were held with senior military officials.

“This is nothing else but a coup in disguise,” said one of the Red Shirt leaders, Veera Musiganpong. The DAAD, he leads, accuse the military of manipulating matters behind the scenes. “Democracy lovers must come out to oppose the military meddling in politics by attending our massive rally Saturday,” he said.