A New Wave of Uncertainty in Thailand

9 MINS READJun 15, 2011 | 17:33 GMT
The upcoming general election in Thailand marks a turning point in the political crisis that began in 2005. But on a deeper level, Thailand is facing a monarchical succession and very sharp socioeconomic changes that have not yet been incorporated into the governing system. Therefore more instability lies ahead, until a new power arrangement takes shape.
Royal Thai Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha spoke June 14 about the nation's upcoming, highly contentious July 3 elections. He warned the public, "If you allow a repeat of the same election pattern, then we will always get the same result." The statement was a reference to the fact that exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters have won the last four elections (2001, 2005, 2006, 2007), but have been repeatedly forced from control of government: first by a military coup d'etat against Thaksin in 2006, and then, after civilian government was restored, through massive street protests, judicial decrees banishing key politicians and parliamentary maneuvering forcing his elected successors out of power in 2008. The incumbent Democrat Party leader, current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, gave his own warning June 14, saying that a victory by the Thaksin-supporting opposition Pheu Thai party would harm the economy and initiate a new bout of political turbulence. The Democrats came to power through a court ban against their rivals and a parliamentary vote in late 2008 with support from the army, but have not won an election since 1992. The latest public opinion polls suggest that the opposition is ahead by a wide margin, and Abhisit's and Prayuth's statements reflect their own fears that the opposition is in the lead. Thaksin has promoted his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as the lead candidate for prime minister in a future Pheu Thai party-led government, in order to capitalize on his name recognition and her charisma and chance to become the country's first female prime minister. Abhisit revealed concerns that the opposition received a boost upon seeing a "new face" in politics, but warned that Yingluck is inexperienced and would merely be a "clone" of Thaksin himself. As a rule, STRATFOR does not predict elections. Although the historical and current trends favoring the opposition are quite clear, the Democrats have managed to pass changes to the electoral system that they hoped would benefit them at the voting booth and when it comes to forming a ruling coalition, and they have the Thai military's support. What is clear is that the July elections mark a moment of reckoning between Thailand's political leaders (and would-be leaders) and the general public. It brings to the forefront the regional, socioeconomic and political tensions and power struggles behind the country's political crisis that began with the Thai establishment's rejection of Thaksin's rise to power on the back of massive rural support in the early 2000s. These tensions have yet to be resolved. Thaksin's symbolic power is far more important than his personality. He has come to represent the mostly rural northern and northeast regions of Thailand, though his popularity reflects his connections with other elements of Thai society as well, including the emergent business or economic class, the police (as opposed to the army), those who see themselves as disadvantaged by traditional privileges of the Bangkok establishment and those who oppose that establishment's use of its bureaucratic and military power to deny Thaksin's repeated electoral success. The military coup in 2006 and the bloody security crackdowns on pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" protesters in April 2009 and April-May 2010 showed the extent to which the military and its allies will go to prevent Thaksin from taking power.

Potential Violence, Almost Certain Instability

The July election has raised the threat of political violence in Thailand and rough relations with Cambodia. Soon after the election date was set, an opposition Pheu Thai party parliament member was attacked. Security forces were dispatched to provide extra protection for campaigning politicians and for crowds. There is a high chance for violent political intimidation to occur before, and on, election day, and 100,000 police have reportedly been tasked with maintaining security. The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which helped the Democrats into power but has subsequently criticized them, continues to hold protests at Government House and has rallied against Cambodia in the ongoing border disputes that have flared this year. Grenades have exploded at these rallies, which the PAD says will continue right up to the election. And the spike in conflict between Thailand and Cambodia likely was driven by the Thai military's desire to ramp up nationalism ahead of elections and the Cambodian government's interest in taking advantage of Thailand's domestic political problems to garner international support for its claims. But the new round of instability will not truly begin until after the election — and instability is all but inevitable, regardless of the outcome of the vote. If the Pheu Thai party wins decisively and manages to command a ruling coalition, its enemies in the military-bureaucratic establishment will face the obliteration of their five-year effort to keep Thaksin from ruling the country and will immediately set about planning and launching a campaign to destabilize the Pheu Thai-led government. If the Pheu Thai party wins the most votes but is deprived of a ruling position — either through parliamentary coalition maneuvering, judicial obstructions or military intervention — then its supporters will rise up, demanding their vote be obeyed. And if the Pheu Thai party loses, its supporters will suspect foul play, will likely reject the outcome and call for new elections and act to undermine whatever government does take shape. The opposition's strength ahead of the vote raises the question of whether the military would choose to intervene and somehow influence or spoil elections beforehand. Aside from the constant rumors of an impending coup, there is the potential for such an intervention. Thailand has witnessed 18 military coups and dozens of attempted coups since 1932, and the Thai military's influence in politics has continued growing since the 2006 coup. While the army is far from all-powerful, it retains the ability to intervene directly when it deems it necessary to maintain stability. The Thai military's reluctance to adhere to cease-fire deals on the border with Cambodia has encouraged accusations that the army is setting up conditions for a national security threat that justifies intervention or extraordinary measures. Nevertheless, at the moment, military intervention before the elections, or immediately after, seems unlikely. There appears to be a willingness to let the vote play out first. Since the 2006 coup the army has shown a reluctance to take direct action, and has preferred instead to manipulate politics from behind the scenes. What is more likely is that the army will work in the background to prevent Thaksin's supporters from taking power, and failing this, as seems likely, it will work to destabilize the Thaksin government in the subsequent months and years. It is highly unlikely that the army will abandon the matter, since a pro-Thaksin government could attempt to promote its own supporters within the military against the top military clique led by Prayuth, and seek amnesty for banned politicians including Thaksin himself. A direct military coup would be likely if domestic political turmoil, such as massive protests or civil violence, spiraled out of control — or at least if the military deems it can plausibly argue that political unrest is becoming unmanageable.

Uncertainty About the Royal Succession

The new round of destabilization could be even more intense than previous ones because the recent instability is not driven solely by the election cycle, but rather by the deeper institutional ramifications of the impending death of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, who has served as a unifying figure since 1946. Before Bhumibol there was a series of weak or short-lived monarchs, and thus there is enormous uncertainty as to what will happen when he dies, especially given popular misgivings about his son, Prince Vajiralongkorn, and questions as to whether the Princess Sirindhorn would not be a better successor. The military's rise and Thaksin's rise both reflect bids by the country's most powerful interest groups to stake out a greater claim on the organs of power during this historic transition. (click here to enlarge image) Thailand has managed to maintain remarkable stability beneath its tumultuous politics for decades. But the impending succession adds a dimension of uncertainty and institutional tension unknown in the post-World War II era. Thailand's stock markets and currency have generally responded to global economic and financial trends more so than to its political saga. Tourism has also showed an upward trend despite momentary setbacks during marked moments of unrest. Yet foreign direct investment has suffered. It can hardly be ignored that foreign direct investment peaked in 2006, before Thaksin's ouster. And in January 2011, Thailand saw the sharpest outflow of direct investment since the coup against Thaksin, signaling expectations of trouble to come. While international investors have long been able to tolerate the country's endless political ups and downs, they have also been able to rely on a familiar and widely accepted framework of expectations. In the midst of a simultaneous political crisis and potential succession crisis, that decades-old framework is no longer convincing. (click here to enlarge image) The country is fundamentally changing, with an insurgent political class gaining influence amid public demands for a greater share of the national wealth and greater political representation. Simultaneously the traditional political establishment is weakening in the face of new wealth and the generational shift in the monarchy. The military, enhancing its authority in the midst of these changes, shows no sign of giving up its position as the most powerful force in the country, but faces new complications in its attempts to interfere with civilian politics due to popular will. The army elite could also face external complications if the United States pressures them to become more accommodative toward the Thaksin movement. Uncertainty about the country's future has reached a high point in modern memory, and this means greater instability will ensue until a new arrangement among the country's powerful institutions can take shape. History does not suggest that the Thai military will accept a reduced role.

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