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Thaksin in the Dock
Who is running Thailand? Even Thais wonder. Billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra easily won April's boycotted election, tearfully stepped aside a few days later, and then returned as caretaker leader after King Bhumibol Adulyadej gave a speech that led the courts to scrap the election results.
Now a new election is scheduled for October 15. Every party has said it will participate, and even the opposition parties agree that Thai Rak Thai, Thaksin's eight-year-old party that has ruled Thailand since 2001, will likely prove victorious due to its vast support in rural areas. So why is Thaksin's future still so uncertain?
The answer cuts to the core of what Thais see as an epic power struggle between Thaksin and a group of highly esteemed senior statesmen who surround their beloved King. The royalists, led by the widely respected privy council president and former prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, wield considerable influence in the corridors of power. They are also guarded from public scrutiny due to their proximity to King Bhumibol, who has near god-like status among the 66 million Thais after six decades on the throne.
While the king's legal powers are ceremonial, that is irrelevant. He commands more respect than nearly any world leader can boast. A mere glimpse of the king's bespectacled face evokes tears from many of his loyal subjects, both rich and poor alike. They obey his every word. Anyone who doubts the deep love and respect that Thais have for "Nai Luang" need only visit Thailand on a Monday, when they will find millions donning yellow shirts to mark the day of the week on which King Bhumibol was born.
The secrecy surrounding the monarchy and the 19-member privy council preserves the royal mystique. But it also breeds countless rumors of coups, resignations and backroom deals that make Thai politics both opaque and chronically unstable. When opposition parties announced a boycott of the April 2 general election and thousands hit the streets calling for Thaksin's resignation, most everyone looked to the king for help. Even the Democrats, the country's oldest political party and Thai Rak Thai's largest rival, wanted King Bhumibol to appoint a prime minister.
The election went ahead as scheduled and Thai Rak Thai won about 16 million votes—3 million less than a year earlier, but still more than double the number the Democrats received in the 2005 election. Even so, the boycott left parliament short of a 500-member quorum. On April 4, in what many observers privately saw as a prearranged deal with Prem, Thaksin paid an afternoon visit to the king's seaside palace in Hua Hin south of Bangkok and told the nation in an emotional address later that evening that he would not stand as prime minister in the next government. While legally staying on as caretaker prime minister, Thaksin passed on day-to-day duties to a deputy.
That provided an anxious public some relief, but it quickly became apparent that the political crisis was not over. The Thai constitution states that parliament must convene 30 days after an election with a full 500 members. Thai Rak Thai candidates in 40 constituencies, mostly in the Democrat-controlled south, failed to win the minimum 20 percent of the eligible vote needed to become an MP. So the Election Commission, seen by many observers as pro-Thaksin, hastily arranged subsequent rounds of voting on April 23 and April 29 for constituencies that failed to produce a winner.
In doing so, the EC dubiously allowed losing candidates to switch constituencies and run against the uncontested Thai Rak Thai candidates. This would ensure a winner—and, subsequently, a full parliament overwhelmingly dominated by Thai Rak Thai. The Democrats filed a lawsuit to stop the first run-off on April 23. The courts denied the request.
Then everything changed on April 25.
In unusually blunt language, the king told incoming judges of the supreme and administrative courts that one-party elections are "undemocratic." He went on: "Judges have the right to speak out and make a ruling. Therefore I would like to ask you to consider, consult with other judges of other courts such as the Administrative Court, about how to work it out and do it quickly. Otherwise the country will collapse." Every state-run television station broadcast the speech in prime time.
The message was heard loud and clear. The heads of Thailand's top three courts—Supreme, Administrative and Constitutional—quickly agreed to heed the king's wishes and solve the national crisis. Reversing a decision it made a week earlier, the administrative court halted the April 29 by-election. Less than two weeks later, the Constitutional Court voided the entire election in an 8-to-6 decision.
With the slate wiped clean, Thaksin resumed full caretaker duties and a new election looked set to go forward. But the judges weren't finished. They again met outside the courtroom and—with no legal authority—called on the election commissioners to resign. One did, but three others refused, citing the Constitutional Court verdict that nullified the election, which said in part: "The intention of the EC for planning the new election is honest and aimed at creating fairness."
This triggered an unprecedented institutional standoff. The election commissioners continued to work, overseeing a senate election and local elections. They also helped schedule October 15 as the date for the next election. This would allow enough time for lawmakers to switch parties and still be eligible for election, as Thai law requires an MP to be a member of a political party at least 90 days prior to candidate registration. Many of Thaksin's opponents claimed this would prompt some of Thai Rak Thai's many factions to jump ship. But none left the ruling party.
During this time, the judges kept pressuring the three remaining election commissioners to step aside. The criminal court accepted a case from a Democrat party lawmaker that accused the trio of violating election laws. Supreme court judges refused to nominate replacements for the two vacant seats on the election commission—a constitutional duty—until the other three commissioners resigned. And the constitutional court accepted a case from the Attorney General that called for the dissolution of both Thai Rak Thai and the Democrats for fraud in connection with the voided election.
Thaksin faced a political challenge new to Thailand: aggressive courts with a common agenda.
Rumors about coups, mass cabinet resignations and even threats on Thaksin's life spread through Bangkok. In early June, the bickering stopped for a few weeks while the entire country paused to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the king's accession to the throne. Then the squabbling resumed. Two highly respected legal experts in Thaksin's government suddenly submitted resignations. The Bangkok Post, Thailand's leading English-language daily, quoted unnamed cabinet members saying on June 24 that "a highly charismatic individual"—widely thought to be Prem—was behind the resignations and wanted Thaksin to leave office.
Less than a week later, Thaksin stunned the country by telling top bureaucrats “charismatic people and some organizations outside those sanctioned by the constitution are trying to overthrow the government, rules and laws, the constitution and democracy.” Thaksin used the term "poomee barami" in Thai, which was translated by local English-language papers into "charismatic people." However, the word “poomee” can be singular or plural, and the meaning of “barami” goes well beyond "charismatic:” a person with "barami" suggests a radiant leader whose moral authority and innate power naturally draw followers. In other words, the Thai public immediately knew that Thaksin could only be referring to Prem, who is seen as the King's most trusted adviser, and others close to the throne.
Many saw Thaksin's speech as an audacious attempt to bring his proxy war with Prem into the public light. Reporters hounded Thaksin for more details. Prem's associates blasted Thaksin and called on him to publicly reveal the “poomee barami.” Thaksin's chief critic, the publisher Sondhi Limthongkul, even urged the public to "take sides" in what he called a dispute between Thaksin and the King—a call condemned by analysts and ignored by the citizenry. Thaksin, well aware he could not take on Prem directly in public, kept his mouth shut.
Prem spoke up a few weeks later. Dressed in full military regalia, he told Army cadets: "Soldiers are like horses and governments are jockeys but not owners. You belong to the nation and His Majesty the King." The speech brought a resurgence of coup rumors. Soon after, he told naval cadets that corrupt officials "no longer deserve to be in this country" and "we should not wai individuals who make money illegally." (Wai refers to the traditional, prayer-like Thai greeting.) The speech was widely seen as a rebuke to Thaksin, whose family recently offloaded its stake in telecommunications giant Shin Corp for $1.9 billion to Singapore-based Temasek Holdings in a largely tax-free sale.
The tit-for-tat between Thaksin and Prem set the stage for a dramatic criminal court ruling that sent the three former election commissioners straight to jail. On July 25, the judges sentenced the senior bureaucrats to four years in prison for election law violations. (The election commissioner who resigned was spared that punishment.) Crucially, the judges also denied the commissioners bail—a move that automatically forced them out of their positions. The bail denial dumbfounded legal experts.
"It was a judicial hijacking,” says lawyer and former senator Kaewsan Atibodhi, who is among the candidates for the new Election Commission. “The judges had no legal grounds to deny them bail.” Thaksin, according to The Nation newspaper, was “amazed.”
Moreover, the criminal court immediately rounded up 15 Thais, mostly from a small group of protestors outside the courtroom who disagreed with the decision, and charged them with contempt of court. Four were sent to prison for a month, four received suspended sentences and the others were let off with a year's probation after pleading for mercy. The court also may bring libel charges against Thaksin's personal lawyer, Thana Benjathikul, for criticizing the decision. That more serious crime carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. (Thana has said his comments, published in a Thai-language daily, were taken out of context.)
Now the country is in the process of choosing a new election commission. The supreme court and senate are rushing to appoint new commissioners by August 24, the date a royal decree for the October 15 election comes into effect. If they cannot pick five new commissioners in time, a prospect some senators say is likely, then the royal decree would need to be changed and the election could be pushed back.
More worrisome for Thaksin are two lawsuits currently making their way through the courts. The aforementioned one before the constitutional court could see both Thai Rak Thai and the Democrats dissolved. Many legal experts say that is far-fetched, given that it would flip the entire democratic system on its head. Legal experts say the original intent of the 1997 charter was to make political parties stronger than before. Dissolution was only meant for extreme circumstances, such as a rogue militant party advocating the violent overthrow of the government. But if the judges view dissolution as fulfilling King Bhumibol's wishes, anything is possible.
A greater threat to Thaksin could come from a little-publicized criminal case filed against him by American businessman William Monson. Back in 1989, Monson claims, Thaksin reneged on a deal the two had signed to form Thailand's first cable television operator. The former business associates slapped each other with various civil lawsuits over the years, with Monson eventually filing a criminal lawsuit against Thaksin for perjury in 1995. After 11 years, the Criminal Court finally accepted the case, and the trial is scheduled to begin on September 18. "We need to keep our eyes on this case," says Jade Donavanik, dean of law at Bangkok's Siam University. "If Thaksin is jailed without bail, he would be disqualified just like the election commissioners."
Thaksin has been in the dock before. After he first came to power in 2001, the constitutional court was set to deliver a verdict on whether he filed a false declaration of assets on three separate occasions as deputy prime minister in a previous government. A guilty verdict would've seen Thaksin banned from politics for five years. The case seemed airtight to prosecutors. But the constitutional court acquitted Thaksin in an 8-to-7 verdict that befuddled legal experts. Rumors flew that Prem had lobbied the judges on Thaksin's behalf. Scholars like Duncan McCargo, who has written a number of books on Thai politics, argued that Prem rigged the decision in an effort to prod Thaksin into letting him maintain control over key military appointments and bureaucratic posts. Thaksin, however, proceeded to do the opposite over the next five years.
Now Thaksin's fate is again in the hands of the court, and this time Prem wants him out. If Thaksin manages to escape jail and his party survives dissolution, it will most certainly win the next election. At the very least, Thai Rak Thai might be forced into a coalition with a smaller party. Thaksin then must announce if he will stay on as prime minister—a decision that business leaders fear could lead to unending street protests—or pass the baton to a deputy. Cabinet member Suranand Vejjajiva recently told reporters that Thaksin may prefer to stay party leader while passing on the premiership to Commerce Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, a favorite of the business community, or Surakiart Sathirathai, who is now running for United Nations Secretary General. Others have tossed around the possibility that Thaksin might elevate Banharn Silpa-Archa, leader of the small Chart Thai party and a former prime minister ousted on corruption allegations in the mid-1990s, in a bid for national reconciliation.
Declining the top spot wouldn’t be a total loss for Thaksin. The next government is unlikely to serve a full four-year term anyway. The opposition parties are pushing for the next parliament to simply oversee constitutional changes until another election is called, probably in early 2008. Thaksin would retain his MP seat and could choose to become a Lee Kuan Yew-type figure; his enormous wealth and personal popularity still hold the party together and ensure him a major say in any key decisions. Thaksin could then choose whether to return as PM in a year or so, or simply pull the strings from behind the scenes.
That is Thaksin's best-case scenario. The worst case—openly favored by many of his opponents—sees the courts toss him in jail. He's stripped of his power, his party, and, potentially, his billions. Either way, Thailand’s road to political stability will be a long one.