Thailand's Political High Wire

On the surface, Bangkok looks much as it always does, crowded, noisy and vibrant with few signs of last year’s political turmoil that resulted in a bloody crackdown on Red Shirt protesters, arson fires in the middle of the city and worries that a decade of political tension might devolve into civil war. The economy is ticking along nicely and the tourists are back in abundance.

This would seem a good time for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to celebrate the calm, as he did today when he formally asked the king to dissolve Parliament and call a national election for late June or early July. He recently told a group of visiting Asian newspaper editors that with the economy strong and the turmoil gone, the time has come to heal Thailand’s political wounds with “free, fair elections.”

Not so fast. Ask nearly anyone in Thailand if they expect the elections to go well and the scenarios that come back are almost universally bad.

“Things in Thailand are such a mess that it is now finally as bad as the Philippines,” said a foreign businessman who has been in Thailand for more than 40 years. “It can only end badly unless the Democrats win a majority – and even that is bad because this government is so ineffective.”

The businessman, who is close to many powerful leaders in the country, shares a common view that Abhisit owes his tenuous hold on power to the military and the royalist elite and that those factions are unlikely to allow a victory by the opposition Pheu Thai party, the latest vehicle for former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s ambition of returning from exile on the back of the Red Shirts to reclaim the seat that was taken from him by a coup in 2006.

“If the military calls off the election because they think Thaksin will win, it will be chaos,” the man said. “If Pheu Thai win and they are denied the right to form a government, it will be chaos. If there is a shaky coalition government, it will be a mess. And Abhisit is just simply ineffective.”

A convincing majority for anyone does not appear to be in the cards. Abhisit was forced to promise an election in the wake of the disastrous May 2010 events in which 92 persons, the vast majority of them Red Shirt protesters, were gunned down after his government was unable to clear the streets and lost control of central Bangkok. A state of emergency followed until last December, when it was lifted.

Until now, no real investigation has dealt with what happened or why, a fact that has been denounced by both Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group. The Thai media has also lost much of its vaunted independence in the face of shadowy pressures from the military and royalist elements eager to stamp out pro-Thaksin voices or discussions of the looming crisis that will occur when the country’s frail 83-year-old monarch dies.

Asked by the Asian editors about promised national reconciliation with the opposition, a weary-looking Abhisit simply wandered around the issue. “I have listened to all voices, including red shirts,” he said. But Abhisit would not even speak Thaksin’s name, saying only that Thailand must “move beyond the interests of one man or one group.”

It is not at all clear how that will happen or if the Democrats can lead a coalition to a convincing victory. An April poll conducted across 17 provinces says the race is almost a dead heat, with the Democrats enjoying a slight lead at 26.4 percent to 25.5 percent for Pheu Thai, which appears set to be led to the polls by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, a charming woman by most accounts but also a political neophyte. A third of the electorate remains undecided.

Thaksin-related parties, have won every election since 2001, including a post-coup election in 2007 that was subsequently unwound by the courts.

A win for Pheu Thai, analysts say, may spur yet another coup by the military, or an attempt to dragoon enough other political parties together into a coalition to keep Pheu Thai from governing, as the military did in creating the coalition that brought an un-elected Abhisit and the Democrats to power in December 2008.

With hundreds of Pheu Thai leaders banned from politics for at least five years by the government in 2007 and Thaksin living in Dubai, it must be wearying indeed for Abhisit to be on such shaky ground when his Democrats should be able to control the scenario at will despite Thaksin’s money.

Amid this turmoil, Thai politics are increasingly being driven by the military, inviting unflattering comparisons with neighboring Burma’s recent cosmetic democratic changes. The royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy – the Yellow Shirts in Thailand’s color-coded street politics ? with the connivance of the military, kicked off a border squabble with Cambodia last December over the ancient Preah Vihear temple that continues until today, with Thailand resisting efforts by ASEAN and the UN to intervene and stop a renewed flare up of fighting that has killed a number of soldiers on both sides and that many fear could be used as a pretext to halt the elections.

Thaksin, a tycoon accused of vast corruption by his enemies, has dominated Thai politics like no one before him, a fact that led to fears when he was in office that he would one day supplant the monarchy. He remains very much in the picture despite having fled the country in 2008 to avoid prison. A Pheu Thai rally recently featured a telephone address in which Thaksin promised a populist cornucopia of benefits should the party win ? solving Bangkok’s perennial floods, building a new financial capital city, constructing 10 new electric light rail lines with a fixed fee of 20 baht per ride and cheap housing for students and the poor.

The former premier would also resume his drug war – one of the blackest marks in his premiership, in which perhaps 2,500 to 3,000 supposed drug peddlers were summarily murdered – and, he said, eradicate poverty in four years.

It is a profusion of promises that seem designed not to be fulfilled but to return Thaksin back to the country. While some Pheu Thai supporters insist it is not the case, Thaksin has tied his personal fortunes to the party and the party to him.

The military is unlikely to let him return. Thus the army has gone on the political offensive, with Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief, basically administering the country from the barracks, appearing on television more frequently than the soft-spoken Abhisit.

In the meantime, charges of lèse-majesté – insulting the royalty – continue without abating. The website Political Prisoners in Thailand estimates 300 individuals have been charged – including the executive board of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. The latest to be charged, sending shock waves through the academic community, is Somsak Jiamteerasakul, a respected historian at Thammasat University, and one of the country’s best-known critics of the lèse-majesté law. One study shows that 94 percent of all those charged with lèse-majesté have been convicted, even if most are later pardoned.

Human Rights Watch has named the present Abhisit government as delivering the most censorship in modern Thai history because of its raids on Red Shirt radio stations, widespread censorship of the Web and the use of lèse-majesté. Freedom House, another NGO, quotes the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology as having blocked 2,200 websites between April and June 2010, with the blocked sites generally those that were pornographic or insulting to Thailand’s monarchy, though some independent news sites such as Prachatai.org were also blocked. Freedom House quotes the Thai Netizens Network, as saying the number of blocked websites could have been as high as 10,000.

Unfortunately, the glue that has held together the disparate elements of Thai society for generations – the royalty – appears to have lost any ability to influence the situation. US diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks indicate that King Bhumibol Adulyadej has made weak protestations against the continuing depredations of the royalist Yellow Shirts, most of which have simply been ignored.

For all of this, international investors seem unfazed. The government reported at the end of March that foreign applications to the Board of Investment were up 58 percent across a wide spectrum of industries from petrochemicals and automobiles to energy generation and hotels, an indication that foreign nationals presumably have some confidence in the tourism industry.

At the same time, the government is doing all it can with its own populist program. It has increased the rice subsidy, is providing free electricity to poor households and is subsidizing diesel to the tune of US$10 million a day. A 5 percent hike in civil service salaries came into effect in April. It has promised to lift the minimum wage by 25 percent through 2012, is delivering education loans to 250,000 university students and making low-interest loans to taxi drivers. It has capped the prices of palm oil and sugar, among other commodities.

Whether these tactics will deliver a workable Democrat governing coalition is unclear. Although Democrat strength in the south is strong, with about 70 percent approval, the impoverished northeast remains solidly Red Shirt. Even in Bangkok, however, where the elites have dominated, the Democrats are running behind Pheu Thai by almost 10 percent.

Electoral changes made to the composition of the parliament in March, cutting the number of directly elected seats from 400 to 375 and increasing party-list seats, which tend to favor the government, to 125, might give whatever coalition the Democrats can put together the edge.

What is almost certain is that the army will try to engineer a coalition that will keep the royalists in power. But if that happens, voter anger could well swell out of control. Said a foreign businessman: “There looks to be no way out.”