Saturday, December 06, 2008

The lull before another storm

Thai Takes

ON TUESDAY, the Thai constitutional court dissolved People Power Party (PPP) and its two coalition partners, forcing out Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat’s government.

And the next day, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) ended its eight-day occupation of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport.

An end to Thailand’s protracted political crisis?

No. The razor-edge tension in the Land of Smiles dissipated on Wednesday because the kingdom looked to celebrating King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 81st birthday.

“There is less tension now,” a worried journalist from The Nation conceded on Wednesday. “But we don’t know what will happen next.”

What happens next will depend on the political trade-offs now being hammered out.

Theoretically, MPs from the dissolved parties (PPP, Chart Thai and Matchima Thipataya) and their coalition partners (Puea Pandin, Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana and Pracharaj) can still form the next government, even though the court banned 109 executives of the disbanded parties from politics for five years.

PPP, a re-incarnation of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT), which the constitutional court disbanded in May last year, still has 218 MPs (out of its original 232) who are not banned from politics because they are non-executives of the party.

Most of these MPs are expected to join Puea Thai (For Thais) which PPP established in anticipation of a negative court decision.

So far, all six coalition members – including the reincarnated parties of Chart Thai and Matchima Thipataya – have vowed to stick together and form the next coalition government.

These parties have a combined 282 MPs (315 before the dissolution) compared with 165 MPs from the Democrat Party, Thailand’s sole opposition party in parliament.

A Puea Thai-led coalition government is not a done deal, however. Getting in the way is intense politicking.

For example, a faction from the now defunct PPP called the Friend of Newin Chidchob has threatened not to support the nomination of a prime minister who comes from PPP.

“We haven’t yet decided which party we will join. The only condition we have is that the next PM should not bring any more conflicts to the country,” Cherdchai Wichienwan, an MP from the disbanded PPP, told reporters after attending a meeting chaired by Newin (a banned TRT politician whose 80-year-old father, Chai, is the House Speaker).

On Thursday, Kiartikorn Pakpiansilp, an MP from the disbanded Matchima Thipataya, became the first MP to abandon the defunct PPP-led coalition when he joined the Democrat Party.

His defection gives rise to the Democrat’s hope of cobbling together a government with party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as prime minister. The party is lobbying MPs and political parties to ditch the Puea Thai-led coalition for it.

w“The Democrats are trying hard to form the next government but they are unlikely to succeed,” opined Worapol Promigabutr, Thammasat University associate professor of sociology and anthropology.

The academician noted that there was also a concerted effort by a political force in Thailand which he calls the oligarchy (politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen) to block a Puea Thai-led coalition government.

Like most Thais, Worapol does not see an end to the Thai political conflict.

If the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai formed the next government, there would be turmoil.

The PAD, which ended its marathon 192-day destructive street protest on Wednesday, has warned:

“If a proxy government of the Thaksin regime is set up again or if there is an attempt to amend the constitution or the law to whitewash the wrongdoings of those in the Thaksin regime, to benefit politicians, or to lessen the power of the King, the PAD will return.”

And if the Democrat Party formed the next government, there would also be turmoil.

“The red-shirt protesters (the anti-PAD and pro-PPP government supporters) will do a PAD and organise street protests against a Democrat-led government,” Worapol predicted.

For the moment, political turmoil is on hold until after the king’s birthday.

The mood in Thailand, however, turned sombre on Thursday when King Bhumibol failed to deliver his traditional birthday address. On the eve of his birthday, the king was mildly sick – a throat infection.

Unfortunate, as his subjects were eagerly anticipating his advice on the political crisis that has brought down a government and closed two Bangkok airports.

(Published in The Star on Dec 6, 2008)