The Thai political establishment has an opportunity over the next two months to remove Thaksin Shinawatra and his family from political influence, but the populist Thaksin movement will likely band together to resist this pressure. Instability will build in the lead-up to the July 20 elections, and Thailand’s underlying constitutional and succession crisis will continue.
The removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office along with nine members of her Cabinet and their potential five-year ban from participation in politics over corruption charges are logical steps by anti-Thaksin political forces toward their immediate goal of weakening the ruling Pheu Thai party. These moves play into their long-term goal of purging the political system of the influence of Yingluck’s family and in particular that of her exiled brother, Thaksin — a key political figure and source of popularity for the rural, populist Pheu Thai movement. Given its demographic base and supporting economic trends, this movement will be difficult to defeat, and the establishment’s best option is to contain it, co-opt it or otherwise prevent it from acting as a revolutionary force. This would require weakening the party’s Shinawatra faction and favoring the non-Shinawatra factions so that the latter become susceptible to compromise and assimilation into a new political order that preserves powerful elements of the old.
If Thaksin is given amnesty, or even allowed to continue ruling his various political parties from behind the scenes, then there is a risk that his party could succeed in its efforts to rewrite the 2007 constitution and give more strength to the popular vote by weakening those branches of government that provide checks and balances to the elected portions of parliament. Conceivably, Thaksin is capable of staging an ascendancy for his party (entrenching itself further into power, and cutting deeper into his opponents’ institutional supports) that would last long enough to gain a decisive advantage during the upcoming royal succession. The succession process will determine the future constitutional-political settlement of the country.
The country’s major political forces will now engage in a show of strength. Those currently in the opposition want to press their advantage and push for the removal of Pheu Thai altogether, while the populists want to protest Yingluck’s removal and threaten dire consequences should Pheu Thai collapse or elections be nullified yet again. Anti-government protesters led by Suthep Thaugsuban (whom police are seeking to arrest) are protesting at the Government House, and the pro-government Red Shirts staged rallies in Nakhon Pathom, outside Bangkok. Both sides promise bigger gatherings this month.
Political intimidation and violence will likely spike in the coming weeks — already there are new grenade attacks targeting judges and public institutions. May is a month during which the populist Red Shirts are capable of coming out in big numbers, though so far they have not done so. Military threats have kept them restrained (hence the rallies outside of central Bangkok). Another cause for restraint is that Pheu Thai is still technically in power and must focus on winning upcoming elections. The period ahead of elections proposed for July 20 will likely see a renewal of protests, threats and destabilization campaigns.
The next two months will be critical for the anti-Thaksin groups. They have halted Thaksin’s amnesty bid and attempts to reform the Senate and implement major spending programs (rice subsidies and a stimulus package) that were meant to buy loyalty and strengthen the Pheu Thai party. They have also managed to keep the Pheu Thai party in power while the Shinawatras are no longer in office. Now a new round of elections offers a chance for the weak caretaker government to get re-elected.
The anti-Thaksin establishment hopes to cancel or postpone elections and use its institutional strengths to create an interim “reform” government that can then adjust laws and regulations to reinforce the establishment’s interests. This is where things are headed, but attempts to derail elections will lead to complications and accusations that the opposition is anti-democratic. Needless to say, Thaksin’s supporters will prepare to participate in the elections, which they are fairly confident they can win again, even as they give ample warnings of what retaliation lies in store for their opponents should the polls be blocked or canceled again.
The anti-Thaksin groups know that their opponents are likely to be re-elected. If they cannot prevent the vote from going forward, they will seek to negotiate a settlement in which the Pheu Thai party takes power but with leaders who are given more incentives to put their own interests first and sideline the Shinawatra family. In exchange for the establishment conceding the right to rule, this populist leadership could guarantee that it will deny Thaksin amnesty and abandon attempts to amend the constitution. The right to oversee the stimulus package and to distribute posts and contracts to friends and allies could also sweeten the deal. Over time, this kind of “compromise” could create a new crop of rural-populist leaders who are independent of Thaksin and assimilated into the system. The establishment could then focus on negotiating the constitutional changes and impending royal succession with this camp from a position of security following the neutralization of the Shinawatras.
Nevertheless, Thaksin has repeatedly shown that he can maintain his influence and instill discipline and loyalty in his ranks. And the anti-Thaksin groups are afraid that they could miss this chance to neutralize him, with the royal succession impending. Therefore, it seems increasingly likely that the 2013-14 episode of the long political saga will conclude with the establishment eventually forcing the Pheu Thai party from office, whether through judicial or military action, and installing an interim government to implement its “reforms.” If this should occur, then the ousted party and its Red Shirts would launch a new campaign of subversion and pseudo-secessionism in the provinces while amassing large groups for the next wave of popular protest.
The important thing to keep in mind is that the underlying power struggle will remain unsettled as long as the opposing sides continue to force each other out of power rather than negotiate a settlement that enables a functional government. Broadly, over the past decade, Thailand’s neighbors have seen their exports suffer from global trends rather than the Thai political crisis. But political divisions are delaying economic reforms, and Thailand is becoming increasingly concerned about opportunity costs when it comes to foreign investment and rising competition from its neighbors.