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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 3, 2006
Thai democracy in the wilderness
By Dylan C Williams

BANGKOK - When Thailand goes to the polls on April 2, voters will be faced with just one choice: caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party - a prospect that sets the country's struggling democracy on an uncharted course.

The main opposition Democrat Party, along with the smaller Chat Thai and Mahachon parties, followed through Thursday on their

threat to boycott the snap polls Thaksin called last week to head off mounting criticism. Thaksin had declared on national television that the election result would put an end to the rallies and corruption allegations that in recent weeks have rocked his government's credibility.

The ongoing political brinkmanship threatens to allow Thaksin to seize total control of parliament, including majority rule over the Democrats' historic stronghold in the south. An unopposed Thai Rak Thai election win would banish the Democrat Party to the political wilderness until new polls were held in 2010, dissolving the last credible check and balance on Thaksin's power.

It is now evident that the opposition has placed its hopes for unseating Thaksin and returning to power on some sort of extra-constitutional intervention. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters on Wednesday that his party was, counter-intuitively, boycotting the election in the name of restoring democracy.

"We are [boycotting the election] to stop a government that betrays and steals from its people under the guise of democracy," Abhisit said. "Thaksin has turned democracy into a license for corruption and violations of rights."

Abhisit also hinted that if the Democrats somehow resumed power they would consider conducting probes into the Shinawatra family's controversial business dealings, Thaksin's government's opaque finances, and human-rights violations committed in pursuit of counter-insurgency activities in the country's restive southernmost provinces. Legal convictions against Thaksin and his ministers on any of these counts could conceivably lead to imprisonment - although there is an established precedent of leniency here for official misconduct, and the Constitutional Court recently refused to hear a petition made by a group of senators calling for Thaksin's dismissal on legal grounds.

That leaves extra-constitutional avenues. What form such an intervention might take is now a matter of heated conjecture among Bangkok's elites. Widespread rumors of a possible military coup, and more recently an alleged counter-coup plot led by army loyalists from Thaksin's former cadet class (known as "Class 10" in the Thai educational system) against rival military factions, have been played down by the government. Abhisit also told reporters that a military intervention would represent a "step backward" for Thai democracy.

Attentions have now turned toward the somewhat obscure Article 7 of the 1997 constitution, which allows for His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej to dismiss a prime minister and appoint a replacement during times of national crisis. Abhisit declined to comment on the possibility of royal intervention.

Traditionally, the highly revered monarch hovers above the cut-and-thrust of Thai politics, intervening only in the event of bloody military crackdowns on the civilian population, most recently in 1992. The conservative Democrats came to power after King Bhumibol oversaw a transition back toward democracy, and senior members of the 60-year-old party are known to have close ties to the palace and its custodians.

Breaking taboos, some of Thaksin's critics drew the monarchy into the current fray when last year media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul accused Thaksin of disloyalty to the throne during a nationally televised talk show. Sources close to the palace note that the royal household has never reprimanded Sondhi for making the allegations, and they say that the wives of certain privy councilors had quietly attended some of the media personality's anti-Thaksin rallies last year.

So, with the opposition boycotting the elections and the looming threat of a violent clash between rally-goers for and against, is Thailand now in political crisis?

The country has definitely reached a political impasse, but arguably not yet a full-blown crisis. Thaksin has sagely appealed to democratic processes in an attempt to assuage his critics. Political analysts unanimously predict that, even if the opposition were to partake in the polls, Thaksin would likely win in landslide fashion, giving up a limited number of seats in Bangkok and the few his party now holds in the south.

Thaksin's popularity in rural areas, where most Thais receive their news and a fair share of pro-government propaganda from tightly controlled, state-owned television, including channels directly managed by the Prime Minister's Office, is for obvious reasons still strong. The station owned by Shin Corp, iTV, has grotesquely underestimated the strength of the rallies over its broadcasts, undercounting the recent 100,000-strong rally to 6,000 (see Thailand's spreading yellow tide, February 7).

Democratic high ground
Both Thaksin and the opposition are now battling for the democratic high ground - an increasingly nebulous space in today's Thailand. Both Thaksin and Abhisit are portraying themselves as champions of democracy. Thaksin has repeatedly said democratic elections should take precedence over mob-led politics - although Asia Times Online has received credible reports from political insiders that his government has shelled out as much as 1 billion baht (US$25.6 million) to lure more than 300,000 pro-government rally-goers to Bangkok on Friday.

Abhisit, meanwhile, characterizes his party's election boycott as a move to reform Thai democracy and shore up checks and balances on politicians. "There is not a democratic country in the world where the majority decides on the legality of issues and government actions. We will not participate in a process that launders Thaksin's government."

At the same time, the opposition's boycott raises important longer-term questions about urban-elite attitudes toward a democratic process dictated by rural preferences - particularly considering that Thaksin is still the darling of the rural heartland after splurging in recent years on an array of populist spending policies aimed at the grassroots economy.

Significantly, the disparate interest groups represented at the growing anti-Thaksin rallies have duly failed to identify the opposition Democrat Party as the best alternative to Thaksin. Moreover, recent opinion polls show that an overwhelming majority of Bangkok-based voters are opposed to the opposition's decision to boycott the polls. Abhisit told reporters that the party's decision was not a publicity stunt, but represented the only path possible to place Thai politics back on a democratic course.

But as corruption allegations against Thaksin's government mount and his actions widen the dangerous divide emerging in Thai society, in the event of some sort of extra-constitutional intervention - either from the palace or the military - the Democrats are the only viable option if the country is to stay on a democratic course. Increasingly, the Democrats are finally offering up some fresh policy ideas - even if that means rolling back many of Thaksin's controversial economic programs.

If Abhisit's party were somehow returned to power it would look to roll back Thaksin's plans to privatize Thailand's electricity-generating monopoly and a controversial free-trade agreement with the United States, the Democrat leader said.

The current political standoff has brought business planning across the country to a standstill. As inflation rises, the current account slips into deficit and overall business confidence wanes, perhaps the Shinawatra sale of Shin Corp to Singapore's Temasek was an indication of the family's own waning confidence in Thaksin's policies - and staying power.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)

Thai opposition vows election boycott
(Mar 1, '06)

Thailand on the precipice
(Feb 28, '06)

'Get out' ringing in Thaksin's ears
(Feb 28, '06)

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