Thailand’s Reverse Revolution: Angry Elites Target Democracy

Thailand continues its slow motion political implosion.  The prime minister has been ousted and a new election has been scheduled for July 20, but the latter will settle nothing unless traditional ruling elites are willing to accept a government run by their opponents.  If not, the country risks a violent explosion. 

Bangkok’s politics long leaned authoritarian.  However, in 2001 telecommunications executive Thaksin Shinawatra campaigned as a populist, winning the votes of Thailand’s neglected rural poor to become prime minister. 

Instead of figuring out how to better appeal to the popular majority, his opponents organized the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy which launched protests to topple his government.  The military ousted the traveling Thaksin in 2006 and tried him in absentia for alleged corruption.  The generals then rewrote the constitution and called new elections.

However, Thaksin’s successor party won a plurality and dominated the resulting coalition.  Thaksin’s opponents then launched a wave of demonstrations and the courts ousted the prime minister on dubious grounds. 

When so-called Red Shirt Thaksin supporters flooded into Bangkok to protest the de facto coup, Democrat Party Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government, backed by the military, killed scores and injured thousands of demonstrators, and imprisoned numerous opposition leaders. 

Then Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, and her Pheu Thai party won an absolute majority in the 2011 election.  So PAD morphed into the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by former DP deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, one of those responsible for the 2010 killings.  Channeling Benito Mussolini and his infamous Black Shirts, Suthep organized mobs to drive her from office and called on the military to stage a coup.

In response, Prime Minister Yingluck called new elections, further angering the opposition which knew it would lose.  Suthep’s forces blocked many Thais from voting in February.  His attacks left enough constituencies unfilled to prevent the new parliament from taking office. 

Then, in March, the opposition-controlled Constitutional Court invalidated the entire election because the government’s opponents had prevented Thais from voting.  Yingluck remained caretaker prime minister with only limited power to govern.  Now the Constitutional Court has ousted her over the attempted reassignment of a government official.  Suthep and his allies hope to install a compliant unelected prime minister.

But leaders of the United Front for Democracy, or Red Shirts, promised to respond violently to any judicial coup.  In the past, the widely respected king was able to transcend party factions, but he is aged and largely disengaged while other members of the court back Suthep.

As I point out in my new article on National Interest online:  “Thaksin has been justifiably criticized, but his opponents generate more heat than light.  For instance, his corruption conviction, in absentia by a compliant court under a military regime, proves little.  One can criticize Thaksin’s populist approach, but political parties around the world commonly adopt a “tax and tax, spend and spend” election strategy.” 

Suthep denounced Yingluck as a tool of her brother, but many Thais supported her because they believe she represents his views.  Ultimately, Suthep and his supporters are most interested in gaining power for themselves. 

So far Thailand’s generals have demonstrated no interest in taking control again. The only real solution can come from the political process. 

For instance, a Thaksin family withdrawal from politics would help ease political tensions.  However, that would be more likely if he did not fear, with good cause, being targeted by his enemies.  It is even more essential to exclude those who have been employing violence for their own political ends, most notably Suthep and Abhisit.

Constitutional reform also might ease social conflict.  Reducing the central government’s reach and devolving authority to provinces would reduce the winner-take-all character of Thai politics. 

Putative authoritarians like Suthep most risk plunging Thai society into violence.  Establishment elites must pull their country back from the brink.