Thailand's political woes unlikely to mend despite promised elections

Anti-government protests in Bangkok at Rajaprasong Intersection
Protesters on motorcycles in Bangkok,1 December 2013

Thailand’s political crisis refuses to calm down. Historically, this is not an unusual situation for the tumultuous country.

But with the amount of economic growth predicted to wash through Southeast Asia in the coming years, any recurring instability could prevent Thailand from benefiting from the smorgasbord of expected economic development and foreign direct investment.

This would be a huge blow to the emerging economy, especially when the country occupies such a beneficial strategic geographic location and rich ethnic and cultural influence over the entire region.

The time could be almost ripe for Thailand to assume unprecedented political sway over Southeast Asia but it may miss this opportunity if it cannot sort out its deeply divided political polarisation.

In response to the last few months of widespread protests and increasing violence, the ruling Pheu Thai party ordered a 60-day state of emergency before demonstrations could shut down the country.

The bloodshed is pushing the country into dangerous waters ahead of the controversial elections scheduled for February 7.

Political polarisation

Politics is unpredictable in Thailand and that’s being generous. Traditionally, the urban elite have pulled the political strings for years, but the rural masses are becoming more vocal.

Protests are very common and generally regarded as a tactic to theatrically vent an opposition’s dislike of an incumbent government, often without supplying a viable alternative.

Following the 2006 ouster of Thai leader and telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, anti-government protests have escalated particularly since his sister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party won democratic elections and resumed control over the Southeast Asian country last June.

The Shinawatra clan has scored back-to-back election victories now for over a decade.

The current ruling party – Pheu Thai – boasts heavy support from rice farmers and other rural peasantry, as well as the entrepreneurial sector and nationalists.

This electoral base put their faith in the Pheu Thai government and expected their living conditions to rise. But corruption and unpopular policies have slowed this progress, turning once-stalwart supporters into disgruntled farmers.

On the other side, opposition parties have been dominated in the polls throughout this time and there’s little reason to feel hopeful for chances of their success in the upcoming elections.

The necessary reforms needed for the opposition parties simply aren’t being made. But violence between the two opposing sides threatens to work against Shinawatra’s government regardless of which side commits it.

The Thai government has already begun deploying soldiers to demonstration hotspots to help maintain order. However, putting troops on the streets to monitor protesters - who actually represent the very electoral base many of the soldiers hark from - is a risky move for the Shinawatra government.

This is because Thailand has experienced 12 successful political coups since 1932.The memory of these coups is still fresh in the minds of Thai voters.

While the opposition activists claim Shinawatra’s government is inherently corrupt, the prospect of provoking the military into bringing down the government doesn’t necessarily sound like a suitable alternative.

Downward spiralling security problems

Shinawatra’s party received a healthy majority victory in the last elections and still commands high levels of popularity among voters.

The latest round of protests was sparked when the Pheu Thai party proposed an amnesty for ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who had to flee into exile after corruption charges, to return to Thailand.

As might be predicted, the opposition took offence and Shinawatra’s government quickly called early elections to cool the protests before they got out of hand.

Early elections seemed like a good idea at the time because polls showed Shinawatra’s party well in the lead with a high chance of re-entering power. But the demonstration’s momentum has refused to slow.

This week, with recent reports of grenade attacks, the political and security situation is clearly swiftly deteriorating.

Twenty-eight protesters were injured in Bangkok on January 17 when an unknown attacker threw a grenade at a demonstration led by Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the People's Democratic Reform Committee protest group. 

Mr Thaugsuban was present at the event but managed to escape injury.

Elsewhere, two fragmentation grenades exploded at an anti-government demonstration near Bangkok's Victory Monument on January 19, wounding at least 28 people, police said.

Even though the military have tried to take a more subtle and disengaged level of intervention in the country’s politics, the last thing they want to see is Thailand grind to an economic halt.

Protesters have openly called for the military’s support in their cause and the army are closely connected to the country’s autocratic past.

Elections only gloss for deeper issues
Lending some psychological support to the Shinawatra government’s position is that, while the military may spot an opportunity to unseat the regime on the side of the opposition and restore calm, the generals know very well that such a move would further alienate the country from their mutual goal of reaching economic success.

But if the Pheu Thai party were to be successful in February’s elections, it would still have to deal with grave bureaucratic and legal disputes before carrying on its control of the country unencumbered.

On the other hand, if the opposition gets its way in the upcoming elections, it will have simply achieved the removal of the Shinawatra government. If it can convince the military to give it support in this goal, then its legitimacy may be bolstered but that is a tentative result at best.

This wouldn’t fix the political quagmire at the heart of Thailand’s problems, in fact it may entrench it.

The structural problem plaguing Thailand is not one particular government’s weaknesses but rather deep divisions between the political parties and both sides' unwillingness to wean their members off the temptations of corruption which has long defined their leadership.

Just like a living organism, the country is already at the limits of what it can tolerate in terms of political polarisation and desperately needs a change. Unfortunately, the nearby elections are unlikely to mend these issues quickly enough.

Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTEL and Analysis

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2 Comments & Questions

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"The time could be almost ripe for Thailand to assume unprecedented political sway over Southeast Asia ..." What countries would those be? Not Lao or Cambodia, and certainly not Vietnam. Indonesia? Joke. The author has no understanding of the regional political and economic situation in the Mekong region or more broadly in Southeast Asia.

"the political and security situation is clearly swiftly deteriorating". This is not true at all. I've seen some demonstrations in Bangkok myself. I am informed by Thai language analysis and reports. Yes, some idiots discharged a couple of grenades. That in itself does not warrant a conclusion of a swiftly deteriorating security situation. By Thai standards, and by standards in many countries, these Thai protests are hugely respectful and peaceful.

I suspect the author has not visited Thailand recently, if ever, and/or does not have access to Thai language analysis.

Here I was ready to pay up my online subscription to NBR - and you go and publish this schoolboy term paper. Even though I suspect very few NBR readers give a rat's ass about Thailand, jeeez, NBR, you can do better. Please try.

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The situation is deteriorating because the once-peaceful protests are now anything but. Violence, while certainly not widespread, is a recurring factor at many demonstrations. Protesters in Thailand surrounded a polling station Sunday in an attempt to block early voting for general elections next week. Police killed Thai protest leader Suthin Thararin at one event, and nine others were injured in clashes with police. The demonstrators successfully interrupted voting at 49 of the 50 polling stations in Bangkok and in other areas around the country. The election commission is calling for the government to postpone the election set for Feb. 2, fearing violence, but the government insists it will proceed on schedule.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s decision to hold new elections in the face of growing protests has not done much to end tensions and there is little indication the situation will calm even after a new vote. General elections are almost certain to be turbulent, with protesters likely to again attempt to reduce voter turnout. The opposition appears to be determined to force “reform” of the political system and they want an unelected caretaker government to take over, even if they have to use violence to force that change.

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