5 December 2013
Duncan McCargo
Duncan McCargo
Former Associate Fellow, Asia Programme


Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban cheers during a New Year's Eve celebration at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on 1 January 2014. Photo by Piti A Sahakorn/LightRocket /Getty Images.
Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban cheers during a New Year's Eve celebration at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on 1 January 2014. Photo by Piti A Sahakorn/LightRocket /Getty Images.


The fast-moving nature of anti-government protests now engulfing Bangkok makes it futile to try to predict the future of Thailand's escalating political crisis. But one thing is clear: all possible scenarios have been tried before - and all are very problematic.

In most democracies, a serious political showdown is typically addressed by the dissolution of parliament and a snap election. Yingluck Shinawatra's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, tried exactly this ploy early in 2006, amid the first wave of protests by 'yellow shirt' opponents of his rule. His Thai Rak Thai party won the election hands-down, but the opposition Democrat Party boycotted the polls, leaving Thaksin running mainly against himself.

Interventions from crown and court

Shortly after the election, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a widely revered figure, publicly called on Thailand's senior judges to solve the country's political problems. The courts proceeded to annul the election results, but just before a new election could take place, the military seized power in the September 2006 coup d'etat. The lesson of 2006? Winning an election changes nothing: victory can always be snatched away retroactively through some form of intervention.

The leader of the current street protests, Suthep Thueksuban, and his anti-government movement know that their party of choice, the Democrats, has no chance of winning at the polls. This time, the 'People's Democratic Reform Committee' - as the protesters now call themselves - are stating they will not settle for a mere house dissolution.

Previous political standoffs have sometimes led to overt royal interventions. The most dramatic was in May 1992, when coup leader and then-Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon and protest leader Chamlong Srimuang were given a kingly reprimand that effectively ended their political careers. But such moves are only possible when a clear, consensual outcome is in view. Social divisions in 2013 are far more acute than they were 21 years ago in Thailand.

What about judicial intervention, then? Both the Supreme Court for Political Office Holders and the Constitutional Court have made numerous landmark decisions since 2006, most of them against the interests of the Shinawatra family and pro-Thaksin parties. However, recent problematic decisions by the Constitutional Court have stopped short of removing the government from office or dissolving the ruling Pheu Thai Party. Since its sweeping 2011 election victory, the Yingluck government has enjoyed the implied blessing of the traditional establishment, and the courts have treated the administration cautiously. The courts could now decide to uphold complaints that ruling party politicians abused their power by trying to amend the constitution. But removing Yingluck from office on such a tendentious basis would provoke a dangerous backlash.

No election, no future

Finally, what about a military coup? Thailand has had at least 18 coups or attempted coups since 1932. On purely statistical grounds, the country is about due for another one. The military is well aware, however, that the last coup failed in its goal of ridding Thailand of Thaksin - despite his life of voluntary exile since fleeing the country in 2008. Pro-Thaksin parties decisively won the 2007 and 2011 elections.

Since then, Yingluck has established excellent relations with army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha. What is more, the army has always taken pride in its warm relations with the civilian populace and knows that both the 2006 coup and the bloody April-May 2010 military crackdown on red shirt protesters alienated many Thais. The generals also know that any coup to support Suthep et al would trigger outrage in the north and northeast - home provinces for red shirt supporters and most of Thailand's conscript armed forces. Seizing power is one thing, consolidating it in conservative hands is quite another.

Suthep's mobilization of anti-government protesters has exposed a range of fissures in the Thai political order. The Democrats are divided between pro- and anti-Suthep positions, while elements of the red shirt movement have been alienated by government tactics and are deeply unhappy with Yingluck, Thaksin, or both. Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng has suggested the next prime minister should not be part of the Shinawatra family. Within the security forces, Prayuth's criticisms of police for using tear-gas against protesters highlights the revival of tensions between soldiers and policemen.

In the latest of several ultimatums, Suthep reportedly told Yingluck she had 48 hours to leave office. But his proposed alternative - a 'people's assembly' to replace elected politicians with unelected members of the elite - has zero credibility. The Yingluck government is far from perfect, yet protesters on the streets of Bangkok have no answers to the country's political problems. Any future scenario for Thailand that renounces electoral politics is no scenario at all.

This article was first published in the Nikkei Asian Review.

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