Bangkok strife ... 12 October 2008
Analysis by Johanna Son
BANGKOK, Oct 12 (IPS) - Beyond the sound and fury at the rallies and violence at recent protests here in Thai capital, a larger, more painful struggle over how to resolve deep divisions in electoral democracy continues -- and may well reshape politics in this South-east Asian country.
For some five months now, Thais have been following the protests staged by the anti-government, conservative group called People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to try to unseat the government led by Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.
Like his predecessor Samak Sundaravej who had to step down last month, Somchai is from the People Power Party (PPP), the successor to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party and one that won the first democratic polls held after a 2006 military coup.
The lines were drawn again over the weekend, when the yellow-clad PAD protesters announced plans to hold a rally at police headquarters Monday to protest what it calls excessive force used in the dispersal of protesters who had barricaded the Parliament building on Oct. 7. Two people died and more than 400 were hurt in the melee that ensued.
At the same time, news reports said 10,000 red-clad pro-government supporters joined a rally of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship on Saturday as a show of force against the PAD.
Meantime, due to PAD's continued occupation of Government House, where the prime minister holds office, the Thai government -- Somchai is the 26th prime minister -- has barely been able to function as such. Since Aug. 26, it has had to operate from the old international airport or hold meetings at military headquarters.
The fear of more political violence remains very real, and no clear means for a solution is in sight. "Don't ask me what's going to happen, because we don't even know what's going to happen in the next few hours," remarked one Thai activist.
There is also no consensus on what the rules are in resolving a conflict that has actually been simmering for years, since the Thaksin government was first voted into power in 2001.
Accused of corruption and human rights abuses, Thaksin -- who jumped bail in August to avoid charges and has sought asylum in Britain -- skillfully courted poorer voters who had long been neglected by traditional politicians, by building the north and north-east of the country into his bailiwicks.
This support, courted through measures such as village loan schemes and universal health insurance, sent the PPP -- which critics call a "proxy government" on Thaksin's behalf -- to victory in the December 2007 national polls, which were held under the military government that booted Thaksin out of office in the coup of September 2006.
But the vote result was rejected by PAD, which had also played a key role in public protests that led to Thaksin's departure from office. Indeed, for the last three years, Thai politics has been dominated by Thaksin's populist brand of politics and his political foes' reactions to it.
Led by elite figures such as a media tycoon and general, with some middle-class backing, PAD now wants the PPP out and says it is an "illegitimate" government because poor voters responsible for its victory did not know any better.
This goes to the crux of the tensions playing out today. The real struggle is not so much between the government and the PAD, analysts say, but between the elite nature of electoral politics versus the voice and vote of rural, poorer voters who have long felt left out of the process --and now believe they have a voice in the national scene through the PPP.
"Will Thailand move to being a stable democratic political system where progressive groups and alternatives can eventually come to power with citizen support via the electoral system, or will it go back to the old politics of instability, crises, and coups from which the only real winner will be the old order?" Walden Bello of the Bangkok-based non-government group Focus on the Global South asked. "These are the stakes in this battle."
Already, he added in an interview, there is "a very important dimension of class struggle" here. "The government enjoys an electoral majority owing to its support from the poorer urban and rural classes," Bello explained. "The appropriate strategy (for opponents) is to fight for that majority and not ban it for the simple reason that one thinks the masses are ignorant and easily manipulated."
The Thai activist says that the stalemate could allow unsettled issues - such as that of respect for electoral results whether some groups like them or not, and acceptance that the poor's vote carries the same weight as any other voters' -- to come up to the surface. "It's like a catharsis, because we haven't really had the means to release all of these," he pointed out.
Unlike other societies, which have had upheavals that led to deep changes, "in this country a lot of the way politics has not changed for over a hundred years", he said.
PAD pushes a system of fewer elected members in the lower house of Parliament, prompting those like Giles Ungpakorn of Chulalongkorn University to say: "They want to bring about a Suharto-style "New Order", where only half the MPs will be elected and the Prime Minister need not be an elected MP."
The crisis has also led to larger questions such as: At what point can 'unpopularity' lead to attempts to reverse the accepted results of a poll? Can a dissolution of Parliament or new elections, lead to a solution? Is there a consensus that elections remain the rule for putting in place -- and removing -- governments? At what point do public protests become mob rule?
"These protesters should open their eyes to see the bigger picture, that what they are doing is destroying the country," said Jeab, an accountant. "This is about a group of people who they think they can manipulate the democratic system and don't respect the (views of the) majority of the country."
"The group of ordinary people who joined, so-called 'protesters', have been brainwashed by a few people who wanted to run and rule the country themselves by making a shortcut," she argued.
But there are also views like Lek's, an office worker who believes that the problem is the PPP, and that it should be removed from power even if it won the national vote.
The fate of the current government will have serious ramifications for Thailand, not least because it will impact on the results of an election where Thai voters, despite the September 2006 coup that drove Thaksin out, still voted for his successor political party.
In the arena of electoral politics, critics could (instead) "expose his (Thaksin's) opportunistic populism and offer a better alternative electorally", Bello said. But some do not favour new elections because they fear the PPP is likely to win again, although others argue that that is the essence of a vote.
Other theories abound in these uncharted waters. Apart from the dissolution of the House or Somchai's resignation, other scenarios going around include the use of the courts to get the PPP broken up, and thus out of power.
The English-language daily 'Bangkok Post' reported that on Friday, the Office of the Attorney General forwarded a case seeking to dissolve the PPP to the Constitutional Court.
In September, the court found Samak ineligible to be prime minister because he had violated a ban on earning extra income -- through hosting cooking shows on television. In May 2007, the court banned Thaksin's TRT party after finding it guilty of fraud in the April 2006 election. That dissolved the party, and barred Thaksin and other politicians from politics for five years.
Given Thailand's history of 17 coups since World War II, some have openly called for another coup as a 'solution'. Former deputy prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a general, publicly asked the army to boot out the government. Army chief Gen Anupong Paojinda has repeatedly said the military would not take sides.
On Friday, he said he had evaluated the option, but it was not the action to take. "If the situation returned to normal, it would be interesting. But as we can see, mostly it cannot solve the problem," Anupong was quoted as saying.
The 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin did little to improve Thailand's international standing. Many also found the military-installed government anything but impressive. These are key reasons why so far, the old script of the military stepping in to take over civilian government has not come into play.