Paralysed Thai government may be facing its month of judgment

Police lay out riot helmets and shields in readiness for caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s appearance at Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission to defend a charge that could force her out of office. EPA/Barbara Walton

Since protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban ordered followers occupying intersections in Bangkok to decamp in late February, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has maintained only one protest site in the city, in Lumpini Park.

Last week, however, Suthep led marchers through the Thai capital to drum up support for what he promised would be an enormous demonstration on Saturday at the Royal Plaza. The point was to re-assert that PDRC would not accept fresh elections – after the Constitution Court invalidated February’s general elections – without prior political reform.

Such reform would presumably be designed and promulgated by a selected People’s Council under the leadership of a prime minister appointed by the palace. Suthep loudly repeated his vow to achieve this. One proposed variation is that the Senate, for which scheduled elections proceeded peacefully on Sunday with the PDRC’s blessing, could perform the role of such a council.

I have argued that the real menace to the ruling Pheu Thai Party and the (still) caretaker government lies in decisions of the “independent” agencies rather than in the demonstrations. This theme has been echoed since by Alan Dawson of the Bangkok Post, by Suranand Vejjajiva, a cousin of previous Democrat prime minister Aphisit Vejjajiva and senior adviser to caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and many others. On the other hand, there is now a prospect of fresh elections in the near future.

The PDRC demonstration on Saturday drew a large crowd but was very much smaller than the biggest rally late last year. The Bangkok Post quoted a police figure of 30,000 in mid-morning. Judged against the expectations Suthep had raised, the rally was probably a “fizzer”.

The feisty new leader of the pro-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD, the red shirts), Jatuporn Prompan, has promised a large rally next weekend but is coy about the venue. His immediate predecessor, Tida Thawornseth, confirmed on Saturday that the rally would take place. Conceivably the turnout at the PDRC rally will be deemed not to justify bringing UDD supporters as far as Bangkok city.

PM fighting on multiple legal fronts

As foreshadowed, the Constitution Court ruled against the lower house elections that took place in most electorates on February 2. The court rejected the attempt to “complete” the elections late last month because voting did not take place on the same day around the country – as the constitution requires.

This has left in place a caretaker government of dubious constitutionality. It has no power to disburse funds urgently needed to fuel the infrastructure spending that might restore economic growth. It did, curiously, win approval from the Election Commission to draw 20 billion baht (A$667 million) from the central budget to pay what is owing to rice farmers under a contentious subsidy scheme.

The commission has been under pressure from the government to allow fresh elections as soon as possible and to host meetings of all parties to obtain their agreement. It appears the government is able to advise the palace to issue a decree for new elections.

All parties except for the Democrat Party – 53 in all – have recently called on the commission to proceed towards fresh elections. The Democrat Party is said to be “mulling over” whether it should boycott again; it may decide to join the fray. Pressure is also rising from within the business community to get on with new elections. The commission, however, would hardly be applauded by the PDRC were it to do so.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission has apparently been doing all it can to expedite hearing the charge against Yingluck that she knew about corruption in the rice subsidy scheme and did nothing to end it. Yingluck responded in person on Monday to the charge of a dereliction of duty. If the NACC were to find against Yingluck, she would have to stand down.

Yingluck also faces removal from office at the hands of the Constitution Court if it accepts and then rules favourably on a petition lodged in the wake of a ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court on her removal of the head of the National Security Council (NSC).

Were it to be confirmed that she acted unlawfully, Yingluck and her cabinet would have to leave office immediately. Whether the court accepts the petition is expected to be announced today. Any subsequent action could be swift.

Senate presents impeachment threat

Caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra reacts to media questioning after voting in Sunday’s senate election. EPA/Rungroj Yongrit

Sunday’s elections for the 77 elected members of the Senate – one from each province – attracted an exceptionally large number of candidates. Another 73 senators are appointed by “the great and the good” – members of appointed “independent” agencies and the like.

Counting in the province of Bangkok showed a likely solid victory for fiercely anti-Thaksinist Khunying Jaruwan Maintaka. Were two-thirds or more of the senators to be at least sympathetic to the PDRC, the Senate could impeach the prime minister (and any number of grounds have been adduced). It could also – apparently – constitute more or less the unelected “People’s Council” that Suthep seeks.

The Bangkok Post’s Alan Dawson quoted Suranand Vejjajiva as telling the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on March 22 that:

The Senate under a new speaker … can claim the obscure constitutional right to appoint a government, which can rule without public approval until, for example, there is political reform.

Official Senate election results are expected by next weekend. On the other hand, the Election Commission could spend up to 30 days investigating complaints filed against nine candidates, thereby delaying the Senate’s first sitting.

Two of Thailand’s most respected commentators, Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, addressed the GRIPS Forum in Tokyo last week. Their paper, Thailand’s Turbulent Politics: Peering Ahead, is a handy summary of the past few decades of Thai political history. When the authors turned their attention to peering ahead, though, they were more hopeful than convincing.

In their view, negotiation and compromise among the contesting parties is not only necessary but imminent. In the longer term they prescribe substantial reforms to alter the balance of entitlements in Thai society.

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