What will Thailand’s generals do if Thaksin Shinawatra’s supporters look like winning the coming election?
Economist-THAILAND’S army chiefs seem to have overestimated their popularity, as military dictators often do. They staged a massive propaganda effort to get people to turn out and vote in August 19th’s referendum—the country’s first ever—and to say yes to a new constitution written by a military-appointed panel. Yet the turnout was a tepid 58%. And though the constitution was approved, the yes vote was just 57%. Some of those voting yes will have done so only because the passing of the constitution paves the way for elections, promised for December. They were voting to hasten the end of the military dictatorship, not to express support for it.
The referendum showed that Thailand remains deeply divided: in the poor and populous north-east, a stronghold of Thaksin Shinawatra, the elected prime minister deposed in last September’s coup, 62% voted to reject the charter. In the south, a stronghold of the Democrats, the main opposition in the last elected parliament, the yes vote was 88%. In recent months, graft-busting panels appointed by the military have begun to bring corruption cases against Mr Thaksin, who is exiled in Britain. In the week leading up to the referendum, the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for him, for failing to appear at a hearing for alleged corruption over his wife’s purchase of a chunk of prime state-owned land in Bangkok. But the high rejection rate for the generals’ constitution in Mr Thaksin’s heartlands suggests that his popularity has largely survived the efforts to discredit him.
After the referendum on August 19th, General Surayud Chulanont, the prime minister, insisted that elections would “definitely” be held in late December. But three days later General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the army chief, felt obliged to deny rumours, which had caused a stockmarket slump, that some sort of further coup was in the works.
Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party was dissolved in May by a Constitutional Tribunal set up by the junta, for misdeeds in a general election held in 2006 and subsequently annulled. He and over 100 of his cronies were barred from politics for five years. However, more than 200 former TRT parliamentarians subsequently joined the obscure People’s Power Party (PPP).
Their numbers comfortably exceed the 96 seats that the Democrats won in the last valid election, in 2005 (compared with TRT‘s 375). So the PPP may enter the coming election campaign as frontrunner. The prospect of a reborn Thaksinite party leading the next government is surely not one the generals would relish.
The plan, it is assumed, was that after TRT‘s demise Thailand would return to the weak and short-lived coalition governments that had preceded its rise to power in 2001. Several changes in the new constitution—such as the merging of single-seat constituencies into larger ones in which the second- and third-placed candidates would also win seats—seem designed to give lesser parties more of a chance and thus increase the likelihood of unstable multi-party coalitions.
If so, the royalist-military elite who staged the coup would be able to return to exerting influence behind the scenes, as they did in pre-Thaksin times. General Sonthi has even been flirting with the idea of standing for parliament himself, hoping to be invited, in the absence of an alternative leader, to be prime minister at the head of such a coalition government.
However, if the PPP won hundreds of seats and emerged as the mainstay of the next government, these hopes would be dashed. Even more alarming for the generals, the PPP has been courting Samak Sundaravej, a fiery right-winger and former governor of Bangkok, to be its leader. Mr Samak is a fierce critic of General Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister who is chief adviser to King Bhumibol and, it is widely assumed, was the driving force behind the coup.
By a convenient coincidence, this week the auditor-general’s office suddenly announced plans to bring charges against Mr Samak over four-year-old corruption allegations. In the generals’ worst nightmares, the Thaksinites win control of the government and use their power to fix things so that Mr Thaksin gets off his corruption charges and his ban from politics is lifted.
Then they amend the just-approved constitution to remove the amnesty that it grants to the coup-makers. It seems unlikely that the army will let this happen. A compromise is still imaginable, for instance if a PPP-led coalition chooses a more emollient prime minister.
One name being mentioned a lot in Bangkok is that of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, an elderly former general who is said to have reasonably good relations with both Mr Thaksin and General Prem, and a strong desire to return to politics. Mr Chavalit, however, had a disastrous stint as prime minister ten years ago. His government badly mishandled Thailand’s financial crisis, which soon spread to much of the rest of Asia.
Several more months, at least, of uncertainty lie ahead. By the time the election is held—assuming it goes ahead on schedule—Thailand’s political agony will have dragged on for two years. This has taken a toll on the economy, which is expected to grow by only 4% this year, much less than the rest of South-East Asia. Even in this respect, the generals cannot boast that they have done better than the politicians.