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Thailand's Elections: Resolution or Implosion?

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
June 9, 2011

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Thailand will hold a long-awaited federal election on July 3, pitting the governing Democrat Party against the opposition Puea Thai party, as well as a group of smaller parties. For some Thai politicians, this poll will be the culmination of a process of national reconciliation that began in the wake of bloody riots in Bangkok last April and May, during which at least eighty people were killed, hundreds were injured, and an unknown numbers of protestors were taken into police custody, often without charges filed.

But the election could simply accelerate Thailand's political meltdown, underway since a coup in September 2006 deposed then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled into exile. Most likely, the poll will not resolve the increasingly deep divisions in Thai society--between the rural poor who have backed Thaksin and the urban middle classes; between archroyalist supporters of the Thai monarchy and those who would like a real constitutional monarchy; and between residents of the north and northeast of Thailand and residents of Bangkok and the south.

Instead, any of the plausible poll scenarios--an opposition victory nullified by another coup, or a Democrat win put together through backroom coalition building--is likely to inflame segments of Thailand, causing more unrest in what was once one of the most stable countries in Asia.

The Roots of Political Divisions

Until the early 2000s, Thailand was regarded as an example of successful modernization. Following a coup in the early 1990s, the country had held multiple free elections and passed a reformist constitution in 1997 that included progressive guarantees for human rights and civil liberties.

Thaksin was first elected in 2001, and brought a significant change to Thai politics. Though wealthy himself, he implemented populist policies, such as inexpensive universal healthcare that clearly benefited the poor. He also showed Thailand's working classes that, in a real democracy, if they united they could elect a politician who responded to their concerns, which had never happened before in Thai politics. At the same time, though, in office, Thaksin displayed little regard for the rule of law, eviscerating the bureaucracy and intimidating the media. Still, he was reelected by a larger margin in 2005.

Thailand's urban middle classes and elites, angry at Thaksin's destruction of the rule of law, and frustrated with how his populism was cutting into their own political power, took to the streets in 2006 to try to oust him. By resorting to the street, they set the stage for years of conflict. The middle classes got their wish with the coup in 2006. But the putsch only triggered further instability. The military abrogated the 1997 constitution and replaced it with a more retrograde document, and the army continued to meddle in politics; it plays a major role behind the scenes of the current government.

[A]ny of the plausible poll scenarios--an opposition victory nullified by another coup, or a Democrat win put together through backroom coalition building--is likely to inflame segments of Thailand.

Meanwhile, after the coup, the poor formed their own protest organizations, clad in red, Thaksin's color, and took to the streets themselves, and the two sides paralyzed government for nearly five years. Last spring, the red shirts clashed with the military-backed government and its security forces in a conflict that destroyed central Bangkok. As detailed in a recent report by Human Rights Watch, both the red shirts and the security forces were guilty of using excessive violence, though most of the casualties were red shirt protestors.

Following the bloody crackdown, the Thai government vowed to embark upon a process of national reconciliation that would bridge class, regional, and political divides that had paralyzed the country since 2006. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva launched populist economic policies modeled on Thaksin's plans, and created a commission of inquiry to investigate the deaths of spring 2010. But the supposed reconciliation has pleased no one. Working class Thais who saw in Thaksin, whatever his flaws, a vehicle to real enfranchisement, are loath to go back to an earlier Thailand in which elites control all levers of power. The elites, fearful that any opposition government will mean further destruction of their economic and political power, are unwilling to hand over any control of government to the rural poor.

The government continues to harass and arrest opposition activists, often for allegedly defaming the revered monarchy, though this supposed "defamation" is so broadly construed that nearly anyone can be locked up. The government also has blocked some one hundred thousand websites, allegedly for defaming the monarchy, making Thailand today one of the worst abusers of Internet freedom in the world. Meanwhile, archroyalist/nationalists also increasingly have criticized the government for any compromise it makes with the opposition, and have threatened to disrupt the upcoming polls.

Royal Succession Questions

Looming over the election and Thailand's political scene--though never openly discussed--is the issue of royal succession. Thailand is in theory a constitutional monarchy like the United Kingdom or the Netherlands, yet the reality is far different. From behind the scenes, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit wield enormous influence through a constellation of advisors and senior military officers that Thailand expert Duncan McCargo has called the "network monarchy" (PDF). In reality, the palace remains the most powerful player in Thai politics today.

The king enjoys a deep reservoir of popular support in Thailand, due to his stabilizing influence over six decades of his reign. But the eighty-three-year-old monarch has spent much of his recent time living in the hospital, treated for a wide range of ailments. Many Thais fear instability will worsen when he passes the rule on to his successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has been linked to allegedly scandalous behavior.

The fragile royal succession has led to increased arrests and increasingly conservative, archroyalist sentiment among the military and senior policymakers in Bangkok. The military itself has initiated many of the recent lese majeste cases. In part, this growing conservatism stems from fear that, if the opposition were to take control, it would reduce the power of the monarchy, dilute some of the crown's financial holdings, and make an alliance with the crown prince--once known as close to Thaksin--to turn Thailand into more of a constitutional monarchy. Yet ironically, the virulent defense of the palace, including the multiple arrests, has only damaged the crown's image among average Thais, leading to the stirrings of republican sentiment for the first time in modern Thai history.

Election Scenarios

Most polls suggest that if the July election is free and fair, the opposition would win the most seats in parliament. But it is unlikely to get an overwhelming majority, leaving the door open for the Democrat Party, with the help of an arm-twisting military, to then try to assemble a coalition government along with several smaller parties. This would leave Prime Minister Abhisit in place. Abhisit himself is known to be a relatively clean politician, by Thai standards, but such a scenario would only make him more beholden to the armed forces, hardly a positive sign for a restoration of democratic institutions. Furthermore, the coalition partners would demand major rewards, in terms of ministries, further paralyzing policymaking.

Even if the opposition does win an overwhelming majority, the military is unlikely to let it take office. The armed forces have publicly declared they are not planning a coup. But Thai history suggests that claims by senior military officers that no coup is being planned actually means a coup is being planned--during nearly every previous coup it launched, the military publicly denied it was plotting a putsch.

[T]he virulent defense of the palace, including the multiple arrests, has only damaged the crown's image among average Thais, leading to the stirrings of republican sentiment for the first time in modern Thai history.

What's at Stake for the United States

The United States has substantial interests in Thailand. The country is a longtime treaty ally, and in recent years has been an important partner in counterterrorism. Thailand is the United States' twenty-third-largest trading partner [in 2009, trade in goods and services was more than $29 billion] and the two countries have close military relations, culminating in the annual Cobra Gold joint exercises held in Thailand. Continued turmoil in the country will dissuade investors and is preventing Thailand from making necessary reforms, such as upgrading its weak educational system, that would continue to make it an attractive place to do business.

What's more, a distracted, regressing Thailand is harmful to regional security and democratization throughout Southeast Asia. Once an example of democratic progress, Thailand now hardly serves as a political example; in fact, more repressive governments in the region, like Myanmar, have pointed to Thailand's political crisis as a reason why they should not move too swiftly to allow real, open democracy. What's more, with Thailand distracted in recent years, its senior officials have provided weak leadership to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the most important regional grouping. Thailand actually has harmed ASEAN unity by ramping up a border dispute with neighboring Cambodia that, in recent weeks, has led to at least fifteen deaths.

To be sure, Thailand's political crisis is an internal matter, and the United States can only exercise so much leverage over another country's domestic politics. But Washington could begin to treat Thailand more like other countries with serious human rights problems, criticizing abuses when they occur and taking appropriate measures, such as downgrading the military-military relationship after serious abuses, like a coup. So far, U.S. criticism has been muted, with many lawmakers still praising the Thai government, even as they criticize other countries in Southeast Asia, like Vietnam, for similar abuses.

Some American lawmakers believe that Washington cannot afford criticism of the Thai government, fearing it will push it closer to China's orbit. Already, as shown by cables released by WikiLeaks, Thailand has become more comfortable with China's rising power than most other countries in Southeast Asia. Yet at least at this point, the United States should not be worried that criticism of Thailand will push it entirely into China's camp. Washington still has significant leverage in Southeast Asia. Bangkok still cannot get from the China relationship what it obtains from the United States, in terms of high-level military ties and training, as well as effective intelligence cooperation.

At the same time, Washington should make clear to Thailand's opposition that if it wins the election and brings Thaksin back, the United States will not tolerate a return of the abuses that characterized Thaksin's terms in office.

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