Author: Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Chulalongkorn University
As its political environment remains murky in the wake of the Constitutional Court’s ouster of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand now stands at a dire crossroads with deepening rifts and growing risks of more turmoil and mayhem. In the near term, Thailand will either have a problematic election that will be fraught with controversy or it will end up with an appointed government of questionable contrivance. Along the way, the military’s role in Thai politics is likely to widen as violence becomes more deadly, frequent and uncontrollable.
Still, there is no smooth and cure-all way out of the current quagmire.
The least bad outcome lies in the electoral process because it carries popular mandate and democratic legitimacy. Political instability will likely persist both ways, with or without an election, but an appointed government is likely to elicit greater instability. Protests against an undemocratic government would appear more legitimate.
The rest of the world, which matters substantially to Thailand, would be more supportive of an elected administration backed by the electorate’s popular support. This is a reality that may not be readily perceived by Thais themselves due to the country’s seemingly irreconcilable polarisation where reason and logic have given way to emotion and prejudice. It is as if Thais are increasingly becoming possessed and spellbound to one side or the other.
Going forward, there are three main outcomes that could eventuate — a military coup, an appointed government of some kind or an elected government through the ballot box.
The military has repeatedly declined opportunities and demands to stage a putsch — most recently provided by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) led protest movement. Yet, at minimum, the military already has been compelled to maintain law and order. A case in point is the ubiquitous military presence in Bangkok where camouflaged bunkers dot downtown areas. Beyond this, the military may come under pressure from the PDRC-led columns to enforce an unelected outcome if an appointed government does come into place. This could involve military operations against pro-government red shirts under the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) who have prepared for an uprising against an appointed, unelected government.
The maximum application of the military would be an outright seizure of power in the familiar fashion with which we have become accustomed to over the years. Such a full assertion of military power in politics has already taken place in the past. But this time the army’s high command has been restrained because the stakes are high and post-coup risks and challenges would be difficult to manage.
The military, however, is not under much pressure to ensure that elections are held on 20 July as planned. But with or without the polls, tension and turmoil stemming from the confrontation between the PDRC-led coalition and the pro-government UDD will likely deteriorate, thereby dragging the men in green into Thailand’s precarious political arena.
On the other hand, the polls scheduled for 20 July appear to be going nowhere. After another day of violence when two of its followers were killed and many more injured in a nighttime attack, the PDRC maintained its brinkmanship by effectively breaking up a meeting between the Election Commission and the government to discuss poll details. The poll is now likely to be further delayed. The longer the election is delayed, the less likely it is that it will take place because of the PDRC’s accelerated drive for an appointed government.
If an election is not in the offing and an outright military coup is unlikely in the near term, then an unelected outcome will grow in likelihood. In the absence of an operational lower house, PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban is working closely and firmly with appointed and elected senators to produce an outsider prime minister whose name would be forwarded to His Majesty the King for counter-signing based on Article 7 of the Constitution, which empowers the monarch to appoint a government if a political vacuum situation arises.
But whether a political vacuum exists is fiercely debated. The post-Yingluck caretaker government under Niwatthamrong Bunsongphaisan insists on having the authority to govern and oversee the electoral process. Suthep’s manoeuvre is risky. It puts pressure on state agencies and senior officials to comply, and may place the onus on the King for the counter signature. As Suthep and the PDRC press this brinkmanship game, their success would exacerbate the wrath of the UDD red shirts — thereby raising political risks inexorably.
For his part, Thaksin made a poor choice in Niwatthamrong as interim caretaker prime minister. He lacks stature and is seen as a complete Thaksin lackey, making him an appealing target of attack for the anti-government coalition. Again, Thaksin showed that trust and control trump merit and compromise. A post-Yingluck cabinet holdover like Pongthep Thepkanchana, currently deputy caretaker prime minister, would be more suitable at this critical time.
While the UDD red shirts have been demonstrating, they are likely to hold their ground for the time being as long as their Pheu Thai Party-led government remains in office and an electoral outcome is in store. But if there is an outright ouster of the caretaker administration and an ensuing unelected outcome, another red shirt uprising akin to 2009–10 can be expected — perhaps more severe this time.
The key in the immediate path ahead for Thailand is whether Suthep’s PDRC gets its way or not and whether the opposition Democrat Party re-enters the electoral fray. If Suthep does not win and the Democrats join the eventual poll, then an electoral outcome can be expected and a way out may be found. This is the least undesirable outcome under the circumstances. If Suthep wins and a royally appointed government takes shape, Thailand’s political environment will degenerate and descend further into volatility and turmoil.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.