Sunday, July 03, 2011

Is a coup on the cards?

By Philip Golingai

The Yingluck Shinawatra-led Pheu Thai party is expected to win the polls. Whether it gets to govern successfully is another matter.

THREE days before today’s polls, Thai Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha had to go on record to state that the military would not stage a coup if the Yingluck Shinawatra-led Pheu Thai party wins and forms a coalition government. “The rumours are merely rumours. There’ll be no coup. I have said so several times,” said Prayuth, one of the masterminds of the coup that ousted Yingluck’s brother Thaksin as Prime Minister on Sept 19, 2006.

Most Thais do not share the general’s optimism that the military would stick to its word of not interfering in politics again. Most are pessimistic about post-election Thailand. And Thai political analysts agree that the election will not magically solve the country’s sixyear political conflict.

So what’s the political pundits’ prediction of the outcome of the elections? “It should be a Pheu Thai victory,” said Kevin Hewison, director of the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina, United States.

“The margin is unclear. All polls say it will be a huge victory. I will be surprised if it is as large as some of the polls have suggested. But it will be a convincing win.”

Hewison, a Thai watcher since the 1970s, added: “If not, there will be a lot of explaining to do.” He was, of course, alluding to the much whispered talk that this election is very “dirty”.

“If the opinion polls are right,” wrote Suranand Vejjajiva in Bangkok Post on Friday, “for the fourth election in a row over the past decade, the political party led in person or in absentia by Thaksin will prevail.”

Suranand, a political analyst who served in the Thaksin government, and Hewison basically voiced what most people (even politicians from Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat party quietly admit) take as a given: Pheu Thai will win most of the 500 MP seats up for grabs. It is all a matter of margin.

What can’t be agreed is whether Pheu Thai can form the next government. Conventional wisdom will dictate that it should be a walk-in-the- park for a party with the most seats to form a government.

But this is Thailand. The main player in Thai politics can’t even be mentioned and there is an invisible hand manipulating events behind the scene.

“If it is a normal election, Pheu Thai will form the government and Yingluck will be Thailand’s first female Prime Minister,” opined Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam intelligence Unit, a think tank specialising on politics, economics, public policy and foreign affairs.

“But I would like to make a bet that the Democrat party will form the next government,” he said. He, however, qualified his bet with “unless Pheu Thai can win a landslide victory.”

In this election, Kan explained, Pheu Thai was not only fighting the Democrat party and its coalition partners such as Bhum Jai Thai (Pride of Thailand Party). It is Pheu Thai, Thaksin and the Red Shirts supporters vs the rest of Thailand minus the neutrals (who, based on some estimates, comprise about 50% of the population).

To pigeon-hole Thai politics, it is: New Force vs Old Force. New Capital vs Old Capital. Progressive vs Conservative. “But it is not as simple as that,” explained Kan. “For example, there are people in the New Force who are in the Old Force.”

What the Thaksin forces are facing, said Hewison , is the power that be. In a nutshell, he said, the power that be are: military (which has either been in government or has had considerable influence over the government for many decades); big businesses (particularly Sino-Thai businessmen who control big banks and conglomerates and have a relatively easy relationship with the military); aristocratic elite (those who see themselves as born to hold position in the military, businesses and government and who consider Thailand as theirs); and the palace (a term used for people around the monarchy).

And Thaksin is the figure the power that be fears the most. “... in 2005, Thaksin grew to be a threat to the so-called establishment, as his influence at the time undeniably wielded itself across the board – in politics, business, bureaucracy and through his classmates in the military,” wrote Suranand in his column Let It Be.

(Thaksin is a former police officer who studied at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School.) Hewison said Thailand was facing political turmoil because, for many years, it had an unspoken agreement on how politics was organised.

“Before the 1997 Constitution (described as Thailand’s most liberal), weak coalition governments rose and fell but there was a power structure that organised the way Thailand operated,” the academic explained.

Then came Thaksin, who has never lost in a Thai election and is the only Prime Minister to complete a full elected term. He “usurped” the elite’s power.

“The power that be decided they would not give up their power without a fight,” Hewison said. “In the last two or three elections (Thailand’s April 2006 election was declared invalid by the Constitutional Court), the people who lost did not accept the result and worked to overthrow the result through a coup and judicial intervention,” Hewison said.

The odds are stacked against a victorious Pheu Thai. Even if it wins the most seats, it might not be able to persuade other parties to join it to form a coalition government. The power that be can always stage a “silent coup” by persuading other parties to decline the Pheu Thai invitation.

This happened in 2009 when the prime minister’s post landed on Abhisit’s lap. Chumpol Silpaarcha, leader of Abhisit’s coalition partner, the Chart Thai Pattana Party, has admitted that his party had a “forced marriage” with the Democrats and three other junior parties, Bhum Jai Thai, Puea Pandin and Social Action, and that it was cobbled together by the military.

Even if the Pheu Thai managed to form a government its rule might be short-lived. And the playbook for the downfall of two pro-Thaksin Prime Ministers– Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wong sawat – could be played out again.

“Yellow Shirts will make a mass street protest. Yingluck will face a legal charge (allegedly for giving false testimony during an asset concealment case involving Thaksin), Pheu Thai (is the reincarnation of the People Power Party which is the reincarnation of Thai Rak Thai) will face a legal charge to dissolve,” Kan predicted.

In short, it will be déjà vu again. And if Abhisit and the Democrats returned to power, the country will revisit the bloody conflict of 2010- 2011. The Red Shirts will return to the streets and Abhisit’s government will deal with them with live bullets. When will it end?

“Whatever we call them – power that be, the elite, the royalists, they have to make the historic compromise,” Hewison opined. “In other countries, the ruling class has done this in the past. They made the compromise and recognised that a democratic form of government is in fact another way of controlling the people.”

How about a coup, which will be Thailand’s 19th since the 1932 revolution that saw the overthrow of the absolute monarchy? “You can’t rule it out. The military would like that to be a sort of a fallback option. General Prayuth has shown himself to be anti-Thaksin, anti-Pheu Thai and anti-Yingluck,” Hewison said.

“If things do not go according to his desires, a coup is on the cards.”