Thursday, 23 January 2014

Thailand's political woes failing to mend despite promised elections

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 over South East Asia in the coming years, any unrestrained 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 South East 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 ongoing 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 Thailand into dangerous waters ahead of the controversial elections scheduled for February 7.

Politics is unpredictable in Thailand, and that’s being very generous. Traditional 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.

Since the 2006 ouster of Thai leader and telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, anti-government protests have escalated since his sister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party won democratic elections and resumed control over the South East Asian country last June. The Shinawatra clan has now scored back-to-back election victories for over a decade.

The current ruling party boasts heavy support from rice farmers and other rural peasantry, as well as from 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.

The Thai government has already begun deploying soldiers to demonstration hotspots to help maintain order. But ongoing violence between the two opposing sides threatens to work against Shinawatra’s government regardless of which side commits it. 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.

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.

A Thai bomb squad unit examine the site of a blast at
Victory monument in Bangkok on Jan 19, 2014 - AFP
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. The problem for the government is that 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.

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, they would still have to deal with grave bureaucratic and legal disputes before carrying on their control of the country unencumbered.

On the other hand, if the opposition gets their way in the upcoming elections, they will have simply achieved the removal of the Shinawatra government. If they can convince the military to give them support in this goal, then their 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 them.

The structural problem plaguing Thailand is not one particular government’s weaknesses, but deep divisions between the political parties and both side’s 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.

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