Thailand’s political roller coaster has taken a sharp downward turn, with the country’s constitutional court forcing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and a number of ministers to resign over an alleged "abuse of power", in what her supporters are calling a constitutional coup. A caretaker prime minister has been appointed by the remaining cabinet, but the country now appears to be headed towards a political showdown.
The court’s ruling, over the transfer of a senior security official in 2011, was marked by rushing proceedings and not allowing Yingluck to present key witnesses in court. The ousted prime minister’s supporters have claimed since the proceedings were first initiated that they were being orchestrated by anti-democratic forces.
It has been reported in the Thai media that the anti-government demonstrations, which had been disrupting Bangkok, were funded by figures who wish to see the country’s royal family have an active role in Thai politics. Anti-government protesters have been calling for the replacement of the government with a non-elected "people’s council".
Although always deeply opposed to the Shinawatra family’s grip on political power, the anti-government group was roused to new levels of anger when Yingluck Sinawatra presented a bill to Parliament granting amnesty for her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, over a corruption conviction. The amnesty would have allowed Thaksin to return from self-imposed exile. Thaksin was ousted as prime minister in a coup in 2006 and was subsequently convicted of corruption.
Opposition forces were further angered when Yingluck attempted to change the 2007 constitution to make Parliament’s upper house fully elected, as it was before the 2006 coup, rather than partially appointed. Such a move would have broken the entrenched power of Thailand’s conservative elite, which has been behind the recent anti-government protests.
Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, already dominant in the lower house, would have been likely to have been handed a majority in both houses of Parliament had the move succeeded. However, at the urging of the opposition Democratic Party, the conservatively aligned courts overruled the constitutional amendment last year.
Thai politics has been increasingly characterised as a division between pro-government "red shirts" and anti-government "yellow shirts", defined by the former’s power base in the north and north-east of the country and among Bangkok’s working class, and the latter among Bangkok’s middle and upper classes and the south of the country.
However, the divisions also run to views on the role of the monarchy, with succession to the frail King Bhumibol Adulyadej increasingly imminent, patronage networks, the role of the military and police, and a range of other economic, social and cultural factors. While this complex of factors had earlier ensured some fluidity in Thai politics, positions have increasingly hardened and divided since Thaksin’s ouster in 2006.
The "constitutional coup" against Yingluck Shinawatra will only further entrench those divisions. Red shirt supporters are now planning to march on Bangkok, in a reversal of the tactics that plunged the capital into chaos from late last year.
In a state of political flux, the opposition will now be pushing for the establishment of its proposed "people’s council", to which its members would be appointed. This is their preferred alternative to going to fresh elections and again facing the prospect of defeat.
Historically excluded from the levers of power, Thailand’s poor have, through the patronage of the Shinawatra family, experienced some of the economic benefits of political power. They now seem to be reluctant to give up such benefits without a fight.
Having experienced the effectiveness of the yellow shirts’ mass protests and building occupations, the red shirts can be expected to try something similar soon. The only question will be whether Thailand’s traditionally more conservative security forces show as much restraint against the red shirts as they had against the yellow shirts.
In any case, Thailand’s experiment with democracy, so promising at so many levels, now appears to be all but permanently broken. It may, perhaps, be restored, if in a diminished sense. But the idea that a majority of people can choose a government without restriction now appears to have been removed from Thailand’s political agenda for the foreseeable future.
For a country that has so much in its favour, Thailand seems to be locked in a historical cycle of elected governments and military coups. The current political turmoil wracking the country’s capital, Bangkok, looks to be bringing it back to the brink of military intervention.
The political divides in Thailand that have led to the current crisis are not as simple as corrupt elected leaders versus trusted technocrats. Thailand’s politics is multi-layered, geographically divided and reflects a series of differing agendas and ideologies.
As with Thailand’s last political crisis, this one can be broadly understood along "red shirt/yellow shirt" lines. The "red shirts" hold elected government; the "yellow shirts" want them out. But, more accurately, this current contest is now more clearly between elected government and an anti-democracy movement.
The governing Pheu Thai Party (PTP) is headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted prime minister Thaksin Sinawatra, who founded the PTP’s predecessor, Thai Rak Thai. Thaksin and Yingluck hail from the north of Thailand but also draw their support base from the north-east and, broadly, among working-class Thais in and around Bangkok. They have had a generally consistent numerical advantage over the opposition, the support base for which is largely urban and middle-class.
Opposing it is the Democrat Party, with demonstrations organised and led by recently resigned Democrat parliamentarian Suthep Thaugsuban. As deputy prime minister in 2010, Suthep ordered attacks against pro-democracy protesters, leaving 90 dead and 2000 injured. Suthep has announced the formation of the unelected "People's Committee for Thailand's Absolute Democracy under the Constitutional Monarchy", of which he would be secretary-general.
The military, always the key arbiter in Thai politics, is divided, but with its officer corps largely sympathetic to the opposition and/or the royalty. Thailand’s final political authority rests with the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in the past has acted as a political circuit breaker.
However, the widely respected and much loved 86-year-old (on Thursday) king has been in physical decline in recent years and is regarded as no longer active. His successor, Prince Vajiralongkorn, is (in a country where criticising the royalty remains illegal) somewhat less popular than his father.
Thailand’s powerful business community tends to oppose the ruling PTP. But it, too, is divided. The more powerful lines of influence are not based simply on class, but divides among Thailand’s oligarchy, which shares a patronising top-down approach to all politics. This then reflects competing ethnicities (various language groups of Chinese-descendant Thais are dominant), patron-client networks and a traditional urban-rural divide that casts rural Thais in derogatory terms.
The PTP is widely seen as corrupt, buying votes and then engaging in corruption to cover costs. But the proposition that a "people’s council" of technocrats can be trusted is nonsense; apart from any other tendency they will, by definition, be unaccountable. Corruption is, thus, a given.
Where the king was happy to have a hands-off approach to Thai politics, other than in times of crisis, the prince is said to be more actively interested. One view has it that the current protests intend to restore the royalty to direct rule, with the backing of the army, or most of it.
Their agenda is to remove the PTP from power and to install, at a minimum, administrators appointed by the king. But with the king largely incapacitated, this decision would then fall to his son. The prince would thus become the less-than-benign arbiter of state affairs.
Over the past century, Thailand has experienced a military coup or an attempted coup, on average, at least once every five years. It is instructive, at this time of crisis, to note that the last military coup was seven years ago.