Note: This article was published prior to yesterday’s Constitutional Court ruling against the Thai ruling party. See below for an update on the curent situation.
The bizarre political crisis being played out at Bangkok’s international airport is causing fundamental damage to some of Thailand’s core institutions.
The economic damage caused by the prolonged closure of Thailand’s gateway to the world is bad enough. Tourism makes up about 6 per cent of Thailand’s GDP and it will inevitably take a heavy hit. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost. Whether the current crisis is resolved peacefully or violently, it will be some years before Thailand’s tourist-friendly reputation fully recovers.
But the damage to Thailand’s national institutions will, in the longer term, be more destabilising than the economic impacts. Following the financial crisis of 1997, Thailand displayed great resilience in bouncing back from economic hardship. The current political crisis that is engulfing the parliament, the judiciary and the monarchy may be much harder to cope with.
The anti-Government protesters call themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), but since May this year they have waged an increasingly provocative and aggressive campaign to overthrow a democratically elected government.
The current Government was formed after an election held in December last year. There were some charges of electoral irregularity, and one senior Government figure was found guilty of vote buying, but no credible commentator has suggested that the election did not reflect the will of the Thai electorate. Nevertheless, the anti-Government protesters are determined to forcibly override this electoral decision.
The protesters assert that the voters in the rural north and northeast of Thailand, the current Government’s electoral heartland, are insufficiently educated to make rational political decisions. The PAD is proposing a system whereby the parliament is predominantly appointed rather than elected. They call this anti-democratic system "new politics". Whatever its name, it amounts to a trashing of the core democratic commitment to resolve political differences via the ballot box and via parliamentary debate.
Thailand’s judiciary has also been compromised by the anti-Government campaign. An independent judiciary is an important counter-weight to executive power. But there can be a fine line between judicial independence and a judiciary that undermines the legitimate authority of an elected Government. Whatever the rights and wrongs of particular cases, many observers feel that the Thai judiciary has well and truly crossed this line.
Of the various blows the Thai Government has taken in the courts during 2008 the most bizarre is surely the decision taken in early September which forced Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to resign because of his appearances on a celebrity cooking show. The letter of the "conflict of interest" law may have provided some justification for this bizarre ruling, but its main message was that the courts were willing to cooperate with anti-Government forces in their campaign to use the legal system as a political tool.
This campaign will climax within the next few days when the Constitutional Court is widely expected to dissolve the governing People Power Party because one of its executives was found guilty of vote buying. That an entire political party can be dissolved due to the action of one executive is a legacy of the constitution that was adopted following the 2006 military coup. It is a constitutional provision that paves that way for a "judicial coup".
The royal family itself has also been caught up in the anti-Government campaign of provocation. The carefully cultivated image of the Thai monarch is of a neutral and non-political figure who intervenes only in times of grave crisis to help restore order. But the credibility of this unifying image has been strained by the events of 2008. The PAD has consistently campaigned under the royal banner. The protesters who illegally occupy Bangkok’s international airport proudly wear the king’s yellow to declare their unwavering allegiance to the monarch.
The King has not offered any explicit support to this campaign, but nor has he attempted to distance himself from it. Some journalists speculate that he is too old and unwell to become involved. But the Queen has taken a much more public stance. In October she came out and offered explicit and public support to the PAD. Her action sparked unprecedented speculation and discussion about the royal family’s role in Thai politics and about the links between the anti-Government protesters and the palace.
In Thailand, much of this discussion is informal because there are strict laws that prevent open discussion of the monarchy. But the international press has been much more willing to challenge the long-standing royal taboo. The royal brand has been thoroughly caught up in the political crisis and it will prove very difficult to extract it.
How the standoff at Bangkok’s international airport will be resolved is anyone’s guess. The security forces are reluctant to move against the protesters. There are major logistical challenges involved in launching an assault on the airport and, with a thuggish and well armed vanguard of protesters, there is a high risk of casualties on both sides. The police and army may also be reluctant to act because the PAD has friends in very high places.
More likely is that the expected dissolution of the governing party will precipitate the collapse of the Government. And there is also the possibility of the Government being overthrown by a military coup. If the Government does fall, either by judicial coup or military coup, the protesters may be willing to leave the airport. Alternatively, they may maintain their blockade so they can be in a position to bargain with any new regime.
Whatever happens, Bangkok’s glittering and hyper-modern international airport will eventually be open for business. Tourist traffic will be slow but, given sufficient time, it will recover.
However, the damage to the political landscape may last much longer. The protesters may well succeed in their campaign to use violent provocation and illegal acts to precipitate the overthrow of a legitimately elected government. They may well succeed in restructuring the parliament so it is appointed rather than elected. The principles of representative democracy in Thailand are under concerted attack. The judiciary has been turned into a political tool. And the monarchy has been publicly entangled in a very messy political web.
After this showdown, some of Thailand’s core institutions are going to require some serious rebuilding.
UPDATE, Wednesday 3 December: Thailand’s Constitutional Court has now played their part in the judicial assault on the Government. The ruling party has been dissolved and dozens of its executives, including Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, have been banned from politics. Somchai has accepted the decision.
The ruling was based on the fact that a senior member of the governing party had been found guilty of vote buying in the election of December 2007. Under a bizarre constitutional provision, an illegal act by one person can lead to the dissolution of an entire party. It was a constitutional clause drafted by the military regime that topped former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. The military, and their allies in the Thai elite, knew that the election of December 2007 could return a Thaksin-friendly government to power and they armed themselves with constitutional provisions that could be used in such an eventuality.
The Constitutional Court ruling follows the letter of the law. But the law has been selectively applied. If the Courts’ approach to electoral irregularity was consistently and strictly enforced there would be no political parties left in Thailand. It is also important to point out that there is no serious independent commentator who would argue that the election of December 2007 did not reflect the will of the Thai people.
The Court’s decision is a blow to the Government but not a fatal one. Government MPs who are not party executives are now free to transfer to a new party (Peua Thai) that was set up in advance of the party dissolution ruling. With their coalition partners they will still command a majority in parliament. A new Thaksin-aligned Prime Minister will soon be selected.
So the celebrations of the anti-Government protesters will be short-lived. They will end their blockade of Bangkok’s international airport and there will be a respectful lull in protest activity to mark the king’s birthday on Friday. But the People’s Alliance for Democracy will be back with new strategies of provocation. They will be campaigning for even more assertive judicial or military action against the Government.
Thailand’s current political fight is far from over.
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