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It is uncertain if the February 2 election in Thailand will lead to a resolution of the ongoing political crisis. Certainly, it will not help address the deep contradictions that lie at the heart of the Thai system. Unless the Thai traditional and new political, social and business elites — and people at large — begin to reconcile their intersecting interests within the democratic and constitutional framework, the cycle of instability will not end. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon for, beyond the Thailand of beaches, a vibrant nightlife and tourism, lies an enormously complex country.
The present round of political difficulties are part of the continuing struggle between the established Bangkok classes and new money that began around 15 years ago, when current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, formed the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party in 1998 and led it to success in the January 2001 general elections. Thaksin, once a police officer, became a billionaire through concessions in satellite communications and mobile telephony. He joined politics and held a series of ministerial positions in the 1990s. Thaksin mobilised the poor rural communities of the country’s populous northeast and northern regions through welfare measures, which included the grant of education loans, microfinance for livelihoods and access to healthcare for the poor. Thaksin also became popular with the new business classes by advocating policies that promised openings to them.
The Democrat party, which represented the interests of the traditional Bangkok elite, became the principal opposition party after the 2001 elections. Thaksin provided a stable government for the parliament’s full four-year term and gained considerable all-round popular support except in the southern provinces, the opposition’s traditional bastion.
In the February 2005 elections, Thaksin swept the polls with the TRT winning 375 seats in the 500-strong House of Representatives. He seemed set for a full term and had become Thailand’s top political leader. The Democrat party was in turmoil after the election and the traditional elite, sullen and jealous. However, the TRT’s success made some of its leaders uncautious and whispers were afloat in Bangkok by the autumn of 2005 that they were privately making indiscreet remarks about the king. The traditional elite reacted with quiet fury, for the king has a unique place in Thai national life and is venerated by the people.
The present monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, is the ninth ruler of the Chakri dynasty that has ruled Thailand since 1782 (as constitutional rulers since 1932). The king ascended to the throne in 1946 when he was 18, and is today the longest-reigning monarch in the world. He has devoted his life to the service of the people and commands their respect. In the past, he has intervened to resolve political crises and the antagonists have always yielded to him. To the traditional elite, it is the king who is the benefactor of the people and it is this position that Thaksin challenged.
Protests against Thaksin began in early 2006 and gained traction after he sold his telecom company to a Singapore government entity for around $2 billion in a deal structured in a way that attracted no tax liability. Thaksin, certain of majority support, dissolved the parliament. The opposition boycotted the elections and the courts nullified them. For many months, the courts tried unsuccessfully to ban Thaksin from public life. Finally, in September 2006, when Thaksin was out of the country, the army, which has always been a direct or indirect factor in Thai politics, took control. The king received the army generals, signalling his consent to the coup.
Since the coup, Thai politics has revolved around Thaksin, who has been in self-imposed exile except for a few months in 2008. The present crisis erupted after the government took steps that would have enabled his return. He has been convicted on corruption charges, his passport cancelled and assets seized, but his political influence remains undiminished. His control of the vote, especially the north and northeast, will ensure that any party of his followers will win the elections. Thus, when the courts dissolved Thaksin’s TRT party, his followers formed the People’s Power Party (PPP), which won the 2007 elections and when the PPP was dissolved, Phieu Thai Party (PTP) was formed. It won the 2011 elections under Yingluck’s nominal leadership.
The old elites still retain considerable power. They dominate a powerful judiciary and the army, and have economic clout. Above all, the Democrat party has control of the vote in the southern provinces, which enables them to control at least a quarter of the national vote. Like Thaksin’s supporters, they have the capacity — which they have exercised — to use a mob to incapacitate large sections of Bangkok, including government offices.
The king is in retirement but retains his aura, which he has earned through his personal conduct. So, the monarchy’s institutional ability to influence the future is uncertain. The logic of democracy is on Thaksin’s side but it is unacceptable to the old political classes. They hope that if Thaksin cannot return, the movement he has helped generate will collapse. However, social forces are at play and the future is cloudy.
The writer is a former ambassador to Thailand, 2005-06