Thais at the crossroads between compromise and violent conflict

Thailand’s ‘red shirts’ are getting ready to confront their opponents if a new government is installed without fresh elections. EPA/Narong Sangnak

It is just possible to discern signs pointing to agreement among Thailand’s protagonists other than the hardline street protesters that lower house elections tentatively set for July 20 will go ahead then or shortly afterwards.

On May 8, well-regarded commentator Thitinan Pongsudirak urged all sides to accept that elections are the only way out of the dangerous impasse that has afflicted Thailand for months. On May 16, in a further commentary, he forlornly reiterated his view that elections are “the least undesirable” way out of the impasse. In the intervening week the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) had returned to the streets to muster support for yet another “final battle” against the caretaker Pheu Thai government and against fresh elections.

Significant obstacles to holding elections remain. The Election Commission and the caretaker government were to meet last Thursday to settle differences in regard to the elections. The meeting had to be called off when PDRC troops invaded the site. The newly elected Senate’s speaker-elect, Surachai Liengboonlertchai, who is unsurprisingly and strongly opposed to the government, evidently wants to see the Senate either act as or appoint the reform council demanded by PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

The previous prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has been removed from office, along with nine senior cabinet colleagues. The Senate is likely soon to impeach her at the instigation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. A previous deputy prime minister is leading the caretaker government. Unhelpfully for the prospects of new elections, Khun Niwatthamrong Bunsongphaisan is widely known to have been an ally of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Factors in favour of elections

Other more auspicious factors have a bearing on the prospects of fresh elections.

The crowd that have lately responded to Suthep’s appeal to supporters “to finally rid the country of the Thaksin regime” has been conspicuously small, for several possible reasons. Some previous marchers would have stayed away because of searing heat and then heavy rain. Some were surely intimidated by warnings to stay out of the line of fire when police move in, as they insist they will, to arrest more PDRC leaders.

Some also would not have enjoyed being the target of police water cannon two weekends ago. Finally, the subsidised PDRC troopers from the south who had swelled numbers earlier this year were much fewer in number.

It is not clear yet who was responsible for attacks on protesters last week that killed three people and injured many others. Whoever was responsible it is more likely that the attacks will reduce the number of protesters on the streets than increase them. The attacks prompted the head of the army to warn that such violence would force the army to intervene, which is to say that it would intervene in more ways than it already has.

The opposition Democrat Party leader, Aphisit Vejjajiva, proposed a nine-point plan on May 3, under which an appointed reform council or assembly would hold office for one year under a prime minister appointed by the Senate. After that time, new elections would be held.

The caretaker government and various commentators predictably rejected the plan. Whether or not Aphisit stands down as leader because of the underwhelming response, it is possible that the Democrat Party will participate in elections in July.

The proponents of the view that the Pheu Thai party’s election victories over the past decade and a half cannot be explained by vote-buying, as the PDRC insists, are not letting up. They have suggested as well that Pheu Thai could fail to win a plurality in elections at least because many rice farmers, who have yet to be paid for their last crop, may see the government as having betrayed them.

The threatened alternative, confrontation

Suthep vowed the week before last that his people would take over parliament and install a new government if the presidents of the Constitutional, Supreme and Administrative courts, the Election Commission chairman and the Senate speaker did not act to do so.

Suthep referred as usual to section 7 of the constitution, which simply reads:

Whenever no provision under this Constitution is applicable to any case, it shall be decided in accordance with the constitutional practice in the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of the State.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban’s calls for a government to be appointed without elections have been resisted. EPA/Narong Sangnak

The response from the courts, commission and military was to reject Suthep’s idea. That said, the army has moved out of its headquarters to allow PDRC supporters space to camp at Government House and along the avenue leading to it.

However, on Monday May 12, Suthep was invited to enter parliament and held a private conversation with the speaker-elect. A small majority of mostly anti-government senators were holding an informal meeting at the time. They enthusiastically supported the idea that the Senate would recommend a new prime minister and either act as the national assembly or appoint the sort of council that Suthep has wanted.

Speaker-elect Surachai was reported to be impatient to get on with installing an unelected government, but presumably on his and not Suthep’s terms.

In the event, Surachai and the Senate turned down Suthep’s call for him to appoint a ‘neutral’ prime minister (for the time being), forcing Suthep back onto the streets with a call for a further ‘final battle’ of as yet unknown dimensions for another week.

As Pheu Thai has pointed out, any decision of the Senate to recommend the appointment of a new prime minister would contravene section 171 of the constitution. This prescribes that the prime minister shall be drawn from the House of Representatives and agreed to by the president of the House – and of course no house currently exists.

Pheu Thai has also contended that there were irregularities in the process of nominating Surachai to the position of Senate speaker.

In the meantime, red-shirt supporters are massing in the north of Bangkok. The red-shirt leaders are keeping the crowd under control, but its presence and size are signs of what may come to pass if the caretaker government is forced out and fresh elections are abandoned. The Australian commentator, Michael Connors, recently spent time within both the red-shirt and PDRC camps and came away convinced that a red-shirt uprising would be bigger than that of 2010.

Connors urged the two sides to compromise, to prevent “enormous cost to peace and life”. It is a fair bet that all Bangkokians other than the hardline protesters are presently willing just that.