Thailand’s Political Flying Circus is Back

The horse-trading of cabinet portfolios that defined the short-lived governments of the 1980s and 1990s is back and bigger than ever now that Thailand's military junta has freed up political activity and scheduled an election for December 23.

While it's much too early to determine who will emerge as the first elected prime minister since the military deposed Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup last September, this much seems clear: The Democrat party, the main opposition under Thaksin, and the People's Power party (PPP), which is basically a proxy of Thaksin's banned Thai Rak Thai party, will not join together in a coalition.

Since it's highly unlikely that either the Democrats or PPP will win the 241 seats needed to form a government alone, the notorious political bosses of the 1990s will likely determine whether the Democrat party or Thaksin loyalists form the next government—likely to be subservient to an emboldened bureaucracy anyway under the military's new constitution.

"The next election will be a circus of old-school political tactics and money politics," said Giles Ungpakorn, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University. "The coup d'etat, dissolution of Thai Rak Thai and the new constitution have all destroyed political development based on policy."

Through a combination of cash and populist policies like cheap credit and health care, Thaksin was able to rope many of these regional bosses into Thai Rak Thai after the party was formed in 1998, firming up the party's strong presence in several northern and northeastern provinces. But when Thaksin came under attack for the sale of his family's firm to Singapore's state-run Temasek Holdings in January 2006, many of these old-style bosses stood by silently, and a few turned on the telecoms billionaire altogether.

It wasn't until after the coup, however, that many of these groups jumped ship. Most are determined to be part of the government to benefit from the spoils of power, so it's likely that the bargaining will only intensify for the next four months before the election results determine just how much leverage each group has.

The top men who sit on the middle of the fence are very familiar faces in Thai politics. Often referred to condescendingly as "dinosaurs," most have been political players for decades and ascribe to no ideology except power and money.

The veteran politician who may hold the key to forming the next government is Banharn Silapa-Archa, leader of the Chat Thai party. Nicknamed "The Eel" for his ability to slither into any government, Banharn hopes to leverage the 30-50 MPs he controls from his central Thailand stronghold to help form the next government.

Both the Democrat and People's Power party claim that Banharn will join them, but he is likely to stay noncommittal until the poll results are tallied. Banharn joined up with Thaksin to form a coalition government in 2001, and subsequently saw some members defect permanently into Thaksin's camp.

In opposition after the 2005 election, Chat Thai joined with Democrat party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva in boycotting the April 2, 2006 election, which led to a political stalemate that culminated in last year's putsch. Yet when Banharn served as prime minister back in the mid-1990s, one of his most ardent supporters for a period of time was Samak Sundaravej, who recently joined to serve PPP as its leader.

Samak's reemergence on the national stage reveals the extent to which the left-wing former student activists in PPP have been sidelined for political expediency. Often described as an "ultra-rightist," Samak is seen as a gun for hire to do Thaksin's bidding in the next government. His appeal stems largely from his fierce opposition to Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, who Thaksin associates accuse of masterminding the coup.

PPP is also likely to claim the ex-soldier Chavalit Yongchaiyudh among its members. Chavalit, who was in charge in 1997 when Thailand floated the baht to trigger the Asian financial crisis, is a bit of a loose cannon whose connections to both Thaksin and Prem make him the subject of much speculation concerning the next government.

It's unclear which camp the various other regional parties that used to fit under Thai Rak Thai's massive umbrella will eventually choose to settle. These include Matchima, Samanchan, Ruam Jai and Pracharoj—all parties run or controlled by former TRT executives or faction members. One scenario has them joining with PPP to basically recreate the old Thai Rak Thai and form a coalition with Chat Thai, elevating Banharn to prime minister.

That would spell trouble for the Democrats, who are also furiously courting Chat Thai and other parties. The Democrats only won 96 of 500 seats in the last election they contested in 2005, but have a head start in campaigning and much more money than when they were going against Thaksin. ("Businessmen can smell a winner," one party member said.) The Democrats gained traction over the weekend when the outspoken Kraisak Choonhavan announced that he and fellow anti-Thaksin ex-senators would join the party and run in the North and Northeast, where the party is weakest and more than half of the 400 constituency MPs are up for grabs.

The Democrats hope to win 150-180 seats in the election, and will conceivably be helped by the new multi-constituency voting system prescribed in the military's constitution. The new rules turn 400 single-constituency districts into 140 multi-constituency districts that elect 400 lawmakers. Voters will elect two or three candidates instead of one, which may confuse some into thinking they need to choose different parties each time. Moreover, the 80 party-list MPs, which are divided by proportional representation, will be counted in eight yet-to-be-determined districts. This could give disproportionate power to the south and central regions where the Democrats are strongest, and take away representation from the poorer northeast where Thaksin still has strong support.

Finally, the election may also be defined by whether coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin decides to run. Panlop Pinmanee, an associate implicated in last year's assassination attempt on Thaksin prior to the coup, has already stated he will participate. Co-coup conspirator Saprang Kalayanamitr has also said he would run if passed over as army chief.

That would be preferable to the alternative, which is yet another military coup. Since it's no guarantee the Democrats could form the next government, many wonder if the generals will take a chance on holding an election that could pave the way for Thaksin's return. Last year's coup coincided with the annual military reshuffle in September, and the two primary candidates to replace the retiring Sonthi—Saprang and Anupong Paochinda—may not want to find themselves under investigation if PPP exceeds expectations at the polls.

A countercoup still seems unlikely, as a cover story might be tough to come up with. The new junta could lose the support of Bangkok's anti-Thaksin middle class and it would be hard for anyone to argue that a second coup could be "democratic." Also, any coup would need palace support to prove successful, and the king just approved the new constitution.

The new charter ensures a greater say for the courts and independent agencies, which have showed willingness over the past year to ignore accepted international legal standards in an effort to punish Thaksin and his supporters. With these institutions firmly in the grip of Bangkok's royalist elite, leading ex-TRT figures and independent analysts openly speculate that the Election Commission could disqualify PPP candidates if Thaksin's old party is too successful.

Still, the military-installed government hasn't abandoned the illusion that it has made Thailand's democracy better. This week the government scoffed at a European Union request to monitor the December polls, with the foreign minister saying: "I don't think we need anybody to teach us how to vote." Indeed, the act of voting doesn't seem to be a problem. Respecting the outcome may be another story.