No winners in flawed poll but Thai democracy may yet find a way

While protesters still turned out in smaller numbers in Bangkok on Thursday, they have clearly failed in their key goal of stopping the election. EPA/Nyein Chan Naing

In early November, the Pheu Thai government rammed through amnesty legislation that included last-minute changes to enable former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return to Thailand without fear of being charged. The ensuing protests prompted the government to dissolve parliament and call an election. The opposition Democrat Party, declaring the vote a sham, announced a boycott and significantly disrupted the electoral process. In the event, voting went ahead on Sunday in 93% of constituencies (although problems were reported in 42 constituencies in 16 of the 77 provinces).

The Bangkok Post on Thursday ran articles by two Bangkok-based guest commentators, Thitinan Pongsudhirak and Nisid Hajari, as well as its own Nattaya Chetchotiros. All three referred to the election turn-out. This was high in the north and north-east but less than 46% overall - about two-thirds of the 2011 turn-out. The proportion of informal votes increased greatly.

Dr Thitinan, a leading commentator, went further to argue that the figures indicate that Pheu Thai could be defeated in another round of elections; in other words, that “electoral democracy can still succeed”.

Hajari, of Bloomberg, took much the same view as recently put by the present author that the protest movement will not have been victorious at all.

Street protests and other moves

As of now, some big rally stages are still operating, though two have been closed; public servants are returning to work in their offices (following some sort of negotiations); small businesses seem to be making do, except for those dependent on tourists; large retailers near the rally sites close earlier and are hard to reach through blocked-off streets, but are open; traffic flows seem to be improving as road blocks are lifted.

Thais have endured almost three months of street demonstrations, occupations of major intersections by camps of protesters, takeovers of buildings housing state agencies and disruption of the election campaign. All of this makes for weariness and disillusionment.

The less visible part of the protest movement is the so-called “royal network” – senior military officers, officials of the palace and the ubiquitous Crown Property Bureau, the Privy Council, Democrat Party leaders, senior public servants, business leaders and the like. Presumably the network has been funding the movement. In so far as there has been strategic thinking about complementary legal and other manoeuvres, this will have been the network’s responsibility.

The widely respected correspondent for Asia Times online in Bangkok, Shawn Crispin, has written that the network’s basic interest is to remove the Shinawatra clan and the Pheu Thai party from any influence over the royal succession.

The post-poll manoeuvres

Democrat Party leader Aphisit Vejjajiva summarised the manoeuvres in an interview with the Bangkok Post published on Wednesday. These include two actions before the Constitutional Court. The first contends that the election should have been called off because votes could not be cast on the same day in all constituencies as stipulated by the constitution. Second, the opposition contends that the government should not have gone ahead with elections after the court declared the vote could be postponed.

There are also actions before the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Supreme Court alleging dereliction of duty by the prime minister and her government (possibly leading to impeachment and criminal charges).

Aphisit and the protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, contend that the Election Commission should declare the election null and void. The blocking of procedures for candidate registration meant too few candidates could be returned to form a House of Representatives under the constitution. In 16 constituencies fewer than 20% of eligible voters recorded valid votes, a further failure to meet constitutional requirements.

As for a second attempt to hold elections in these constituencies, they contend this would be unconstitutional on several grounds and impractical in the light of certain further civil disruption.

Warrants have been issued for the arrest of protest leaders but have not been executed, will not be executed for the time being and expire in a year.

Suthep Thaugsuban continues to lead anti-government protests in defiance of an arrest warrant, but the rallies seem to be losing momentum. EPA/Nyein Chan Naing

A mood of futility

As I thread my way through the small openings in the barricades next to my apartment block and around my local shopping centre, responding to instructions given by busy-busy young men with whistles, I find it hard to see that Suthep would be able to command much of a force to wage another attack on government buildings. In between food and other stalls and countless small tents, past the sound stage and portable generators, women who are obviously of the Bangkok middle class are sitting bored by an earnest young woman at the microphone.

I cannot see that public servants now back in their offices and able to get on with their work would accept being shut out again, no matter what their misgivings about the government, or that the police units detailed to keep the doors open would flinch from stopping any marauders. After months of disruptions, it is hard to believe there will be support from universities and schools that have lost time, from big employers whose workers have had trouble getting to work, even from the committed middle-class women and men who tramped off to rally sites and on marches to show how much they hate what they know as the Thaksin regime. They must see that they have failed in their heavily promoted aim of stopping the elections.

There is a strong sense of futility. I reflect that, really, Suthep has not delivered on his ambitious threats and promises.

Where to from here?

The protest movement has persistently avoided key questions about what it envisages as an alternative to an elected parliamentary government. From what source would an appointed council derive its authority? Not from the constitution. How would the council be selected (perhaps by the same people who select the appointed members of the Senate)?

If the caretaker government refused to relinquish office, who would compel it to do so and how? The army remains adamant that it would not step in. What sort of reforms would the council regard as ending “the Thaksin regime”?

The most detailed possible reform I have heard is that “populist policies should be barred”. This is defined to mean that there could not be any government measure to stimulate or protect any particular industry. More tellingly, it would rule out any service that was biased towards the poorer sections of the community. For some, even a measure that effectively transferred revenue to poorer Thais would be ruled out.

Before they retire from the streets, the protesters might push for sensible reforms within the competence of political parties. They could press all parties to agree to a code of conduct.

Such a code might, among other things, ban giving the status of member of the Council of Ministers to any person who is not a minister. It could bind all parties to maintain the present form of constitutional monarchy unless a referendum of the people were to approve change. Some matters are for parties to agree upon; other matters (such as constitutional reform, amnesties and means by which governments may be held more accountable) and the binding of governments are matters for the parliament.

Part of the reason for what Thitinan detected as a swing away from Pheu Thai among people who did vote in the election is the ongoing – in fact worsening – disaster that is the scheme for supporting prices paid to rice farmers. The farmers are disillusioned and mad that they have not been paid for their last crop. But that is another story that must await another day.