In response to the culmination of a series of protests against her government , Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the Thai national assembly and called snap elections yesterday, leaving her opponents flummoxed.
It’s been a difficult month in Thailand, where Yingluck’s opponents started protesting in November over an amnesty bill with roots in the long-term political crisis that began with the election of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, in January 2001. The background to today’s political protests in Thailand is long and not always easy to understand — but bear with me, because it establishes the necessary context to understand what’s happening today.
Thaksin’s long shadow
Thaksin, a wealthy mobile phone tycoon, came to power as the founder of the Thai Rak Thai Party (‘Thais Love Thais’ Party, พรรคไทยรักไทย) on a largely populist program of social welfare policies that included the first universal health care program in Thailand. Thaksin was reelected with an even larger mandate in the February 2005 election, on the strength of poor rural northern Thais who supported Thaksin in massive numbers.
Thailand, however, isn’t an incredibly liberal democracy, and corruption, individual freedoms, press freedom, human trafficking and other human rights abuses continue to challenge its economic development and the deepening of the rule of law and democratic institutions. Since the 1932 coup that abolished what was then Siam’s absolute monarchy, Thailand has struggled with parliamentary democracy. The earliest experiments with constitutional monarchy were quickly subsumed by Japanese occupation during World War II, and in the aftermath of the war, the pro-Japanese military leader Phibun Songkhram launched a coup in 1947 — Phibun held power for the next decade, and military rule endured through 1973, when student riots in Bangkok brought down the military regime. The next three decades amounted to a cycle of weak elected civilian leaders and military coups before Thaksin’s emergence in Thai politics in the late 1990s.
Opponents rallied against Thaksin throughout 2006 against his government’s corruption and authoritarianism, and they were so successful that the Thai military — historically close to the Thai monarchy and never incredibly comfortable with Thaksin’s government — ousted Thaksin in September 2006, the central event that continues to define Thai politics to this day, with ‘yellow shirts’ lining up against Thaksin and ‘red shirts’ lining up in support of Thaksin. Thaksin fled the country in 2008 pending his trial for corruption charges, and he’s lived in self-imposed exile in Dubai ever since, though he continues to exert oversized influence on Thai politics.
The military government introduced a new constitution later that year, and it organized new elections in December 2007. Though the Thai Rak Thai Party was disbanded shortly after Thaksin’s ouster, its subsequent iteration, the Phak Palang Prachachon (People’s Power Party, พรรคพลังประชาชน) easily won the elections and Samak Sundaravej, a seasoned politician and Thaksin ally, soon became prime minister.
Throughout the course of the next year, ‘yellow shirt’ protestors once again launched fierce — and sometimes violent — protests against Samak’s government, occupying the prime minister’s office for three tense months in summer 2008. In September 2008, Samak was removed from office — as it turns out, Samak also hosted a well-known television cooking show prior to his political career, and a Thai court ruled that his stated intention to return to television after leaving politics disqualified him from office in violation of conflict-of-interest rules that prevent the Thai prime minister from earning income from non-government sources.
The Ratthasapha (National Assembly of Thailand, รัฐสภา), still dominated by Thaksin allies, responded by electing Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, as prime minister, which had the predictable effect of further infuriating the ‘yellow shirts.’ Within the next three months, the Thai supreme court convicted Thaksin of corruption in absentia, and ‘yellow shirt’ protests occupied Bangkok’s airports, bringing commerce and tourism to a standstill. The military, which remained sympathetic to the ‘yellow shirts,’ responded by dissolving the People’s Power Party and appointing the leader of the opposition, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Phak Prachathipat (Democrat Party, พรรคประชาธิปัตย์), as the prime minister of an unwieldy governing coalition still dominated by Thaksin’s allies, who continued to control Thailand’s parliament.
By way of background, the Democrat Party has been the longstanding (perhaps long-suffering) opposition party in Thailand, and it’s a relatively center-right, free market liberal party. It’s pro-monarchy, and its base is the relatively wealthier southern Thailand, including the capital of Bangkok. Fairly or unfairly, it’s seen as the party of the wealthy, conservative elite in Thailand, and it’s suffered at the polls because of its image problem and because Thaksin and his allies have such an electoral lock on the relatively poorer northern Thailand and Isan, the culturally and linguistically discrete region of northeastern Thailand.
In any event, Abhisit’s government plodded along through the global financial crisis and steered Thailand through several low-level diplomatic crises with Cambodia, but its largest challenge remained pressure from pro-Thaksin ‘red shirts,’ who clashed routinely with government forces.
The rise of Yingluck
Newly constituting themselves as the Pheu Thai Party (PTP, ‘For Thais’ Party, พรรคเพื่อไทย), Thaksin’s supporters rallied behind Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, a businesswoman in her own right and a relative newcomer to Thai politics, in the July 2011 election campaign. Yingluck turned out to be a relatively charismatic figure and, with a quiet and professional tone, her approach to politics was a low-key tonic to years of violent red-versus-yellow polarization. She won an absolute majority on a campaign platform of additional social welfare programs (free laptop computers, wage increases and the like) and a post-coup national conciliation. Pheu Thai won 48.4% of the vote and 265 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives (the Thai national assembly’s lower house), while the Democrats won just 35.2% and 159 seats. A handful of smaller, populist, personality-based third parties won an additional 76 seats.
Polarization has continued throughout Yingluck’s administration, with her supporters largely applauding her stewardship of the Thai economy and her efforts to ameliorate the damage of the 2011 flooding crisis, while ‘yellow shirt’ opponents and the Democrats largely derided her administration. Generally speaking, however, Yingluck’s premiership has been marked by less conflict than the preceding half-decade. Though the Thai economy is slowing, GDP still managed to expand at a rate of 6.4% last year. Yingluck’s largest economic intervention, a scheme to subsidize rice and establish a guaranteed price for rice farmers in northern Thailand, is viewed as somewhat of a failure because it cause the price of rice to increase so much that it knocked Thailand from its perch as the world’s top rice exporter. Her government, however, has had greater success in achieving a peace deal with southern Muslim separatists, the first political settlement of its kind in Thai history.
The rupture from that relative peace came in the form an amnesty bill that Yingluck introduced in November to the Thai Senate that would have cleared opposition figures Abhisit and Suthep Thaugsuban, the former deputy prime minister, from charges of inciting violence, but it also smoothed the way for Thaksin’s return to Thailand. It turned out to be a political disaster from all sides — Yingluck’s ‘red shirt’ supporters balked at amnesty for Abhisit and other Democrat Party leaders, and Yingluck’s ‘yellow shirt’ opponents balked at what they viewed as a path for Thaksin’s return to power. Though the Thai Senate overwhelming rejected the bill a month ago, the protests have taken on a life of their own, growing in size and intensity over the course of November and early December, including violent clashes between ‘yellow shirt’ activists and the Thai police.
A temporary truce in the conflict to celebrate the Thai king’s birthday on December 4 provided an opportunity for both sides to retreat from the increasingly intemperate demands, though Suthep, leading the protests, called for a massive crescendo of protests on December 9 to demand Yingluck’s resignation.
In response, Yingluck dissolved the Thai parliament and called snap elections for February 2 (though she has so far refused to resign as prime minister).
What to expect next from Bangkok
Everyone generally expects that in announcing the election, Yingluck is calling the bluff of the ‘yellow shirt’ opposition — if the Democrats really believe that they command so much support, they should mobilize enough voters to take control of government in an open election. But given the way that political support falls in Thailand, no one thinks that the Democrats will be any more successful in February 2014 than they were in 2001, 2005, 2007 or 2011. That means that Yingluck and Pheu Thai are likely to sail to reelection, notwithstanding the intensity of her opponents.
Since the announcement of snap elections yesterday, Suthep and other protest leaders have responded by demanding a new unelected governing council. That’s hardly the strongest pro-democracy position from a party that calls itself the Democrat Party, and it’s essentially a concession that the Democrats have given up on winning power anytime soon through elective politics. Sure, Suthep and the Democrats might wage a spirited campaign against Yingluck. Sure, Pheu Thai may lose some support, and the Democrats could even make gains. But it’s hard to believe that Suthep could mobilize enough support to bring about a Democrat-led government in 2014.
Alternatively, the Democrats could boycott the elections, continue to demand Yingluck’s resignation and the creation of a non-elected governing council, and encourage the ‘yellow shirts’ to protest at ever higher numbers and intensity, thereby destabilizing Yingluck’s government again, hardly the high moral ground for a party dedicated to democratic means. Essentially, that’s a thinly veiled request for yet another military intervention of the kind that toppled Thaksin in 2006, that installed Abhisit in 2008 and that could send foreign investment and international aid to Thailand tumbling, thereby stalling the Thai economy, which remains extraordinarily dependent on exports (everything from rice to computers and electronics, textiles, rubber and other goods).
Having marked his 86th birthday last week, Thailand’s frail king Bhumibol Adulyadej (who’s reigned since 1946) is hardly in top shape to intervene in the political crisis, and he’s granted Yingluck’s request for February elections, which reduces the likelihood that the military will intervene. Top military leaders have emphasized in recent days that they want to facilitate a peaceful solution to the political crisis as a neutral broker.
But with 18 military coups to its credit since 1932, the military’s intervention isn’t impossible, especially if the clashes between ‘red shirt’ and ‘yellow shirt’ protestors degenerate into further street violence, and military leaders decide that it must step in to prevent further chaos.