By Jan Servaes*
BRUSSELS. 31 August 2023 (IDN) — With the arrival of the government of real estate magnate Srettha Thavisin on 28 August 2023, the Thai political theatre seems to be entering the next phase. As I feared in previous posts, this phase makes the 14 May election results look like a joke.
The people wanted change.
When the ‘progressive’ Move Forward Party (MFP) won 150 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives in the 14 May election, it came as a surprise victory for many. Billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra’s alleged ‘opposition party’ Pheu Thai (PTP) won only 141 seats. That was a swallow for the military-conservative elite.
After all, the junta-led regime of Prayut Chan-o-cha was characterized by deep corruption and economic paralysis.
In contrast to the rather pragmatic-opportunistic PTP, the MFP came to voters with a radical platform advocating reducing the “power” of the monarchy, expanding social programs, legalizing same-sex marriage, scrapping the military conscription, amending Article 112 – the so-called lèse-majesté law -, decentralizing the government, and curbing the country’s powerful business monopolies.
This prompted conservative forces—including the military-appointed 250-member Senate—to block MFP leader Harvard-educated Pita Limjaroenrat as prime minister. Move Forward was thwarted by election rules written into the constitution by the military in 2019. Ultimately, the MFP party was forced to withdraw from the widely publicized coalition it had planned with Pheu Thai.
The ‘silent coup’.
In early August, Pheu Thai then announced plans to form a new government with a coalition of 11 parties, including two pro-military parties linked to General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led the 2014 coup that overthrew a Pheu Thai government led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The alternative news site KhaoSod calls this sudden change of allegiance by Pheu Thai a ‘silent coup’: “No tanks have patrolled the streets of Bangkok in the past week because there was no need to do so, unlike the conventional military coup. There was no televised coup leader announcement.”
It is difficult to exaggerate the radical nature of this ‘turnaround’ among the Pheu Thai. For the past 15 years, Thaksin and his various parties – Pheu Thai being just the youngest—have been the bête-noire of conservative Thai elites. In addition to the two military coups of 2006 and 2014, the establishment has used a variety of legal and political tricks to frustrate and dethrone the Thaksinist governments, which had won every Thai election since 2001 before this year’s elections. Now exactly the same tactic was used against the MFP, to frustrate its attempts to form a government.
In recent weeks, behind-the-scenes Byzantine negotiations have been conducted to dislodge Pheu Thai from the coalition with the MPF and allow the return of deposed and fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to Thailand. This happened on 22 August.
As The Diplomat writes, the establishment now feels that Thaksin and the PTP are by far the lesser of two evils.
Thai conservative opposition to Thaksin has always been based on the implied threat his popularity posed to the traditional power elite. With the rise of a progressive party whose anti-establishment orientation is explicit, conservatives have come to see Thaksin as what he probably always has been: a man they can do business with.
Some ‘red shirts’ and PTP supporters have already distanced themselves from the party and may join Move Forward in the future. Still, for 74-year-old Thaksin, a return from exile with a ‘royal pardon’ was apparently the priority after 17 years of wandering in world cities like London, Dubai, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Officially, he missed his family.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam stated shortly after the ‘deal’ was announced that once taken into custody, Thaksin would seek a royal pardon – a pardon likely to be granted after a face-saving period of confinement in a relatively comfortable environment. After this ‘feat’, Wissanu announced his departure from politics.
Because, even in conservative ranks, the anger about the deal has not yet subsided. Anand Sakorncharoen, treasurer of the small ultra-royalist Thai Pakdee party, has recently filed a petition seeking to nullify the royal pardon request. The petition argues that former Prime Minister Thaksin has been convicted of corruption in four cases, seriously damaging the country’s governance and reputation.
The end of an era?
The first hurdle for Pheu Thai was to secure Srettha Thavisin’s appointment as prime minister. The second was reaching an agreement within the elite on Thaksin’s rehabilitation and the scope of any political role he may play in his final years.
This only happened with a fight. After such a protracted and bitter battle, some on both sides find it difficult to put aside old animosities. Also, within the Pheu Thai party, a divide seems to be growing between those who support Thaksin’s populist agenda and those who support democratic reforms more broadly, who may now be flocking to the MFP.
In a sense, Thaksin’s return marks the end of an important phase in Thai political history—one dominated by the struggle between Thailand’s conservative ‘yellow’ establishment and the ‘red’ populist movement built by Thaksin.
During the campaign, the leaders, including then Prime Ministerial candidate Srettha, pledged not to form a coalition with pro-junta parties. “Now they just have to find ways to say factually that they have not lied, but that the situation has changed, or that this is the best thing for Thailand’s future,” Pravit Rojanaphruk notices in KhaoSodEnglish on 23 August.
“It is not just broken promises (or lies) as a result of Pheu Thai getting Prayut’s United Thai Nation and Prawit’s Phalang Pracharath on board that will have a long-term negative effect on Thai politics, but the new government will unlikely to be able to reform the government because armed forces and police are critical to the powers of the deep state.” After all, the power of the military, which has dominated since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, cannot be denied.
That’s why Arun Saronchai cuts corners in the 25 August Thai Inquirer: “From allegations like ‘Thammanat Prompao is a corrupt, drug-dealing thug’ to ‘Anutin Charnvirakul is killing the country with his ill-conceived vaccine policies,’ these were LITERAL statements from Pheu Thai leadership. And yet here they are, arm in arm, dancing in the disgusting waltz of politics. It is ridiculous. It’s unethical. And it is absolutely shameless.”
Red and Yellow again.
Nearly a decade after the coup, Thailand’s attempt to return the military to its barracks failed, and the Pheu Thai Party has chosen to share power with the military, John Bertelsen concludes in the Asia Sentinel. An important additional factor is the normalization of the militarization of Thai society and rules over the past nine years.
However, Thai public opinion raised its eyebrows. A poll by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) indicated that about 64% of 1,310 respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the idea of the Pheu Thai party forming a “special government” with military-backed rivals. An additional poll conducted between 21 August and 24 August by Sri Pathum University indicates that the popularity of the MFP has risen by 62%, and that of Pheu Thai has fallen by 10%. MFP leader Pita would get 51% of the voters behind him in new elections, while new strongman Settha can count on barely 11%.
Nevertheless, Pheu Thai claims it now has a chance to prove it can turn around the Thai economy. That’s their strength, they argue, based on previous economic results. But, after all, they have not been in power since the May 2014 coup. And to say that the Thai economy did not fare well under Prayut is a huge understatement.
But Thaksin has had to accept that he was forced to bow at least in part to the royalist, military, and establishment factions that ousted him as prime minister in 2006 and disbanded his Thai Rak Thai party, despite the strong appeal of his populist social policies among Thai voters.
The room for action is now limited by the coalition composition that Srettha nominally leads. The Setthra government is staffed by 36 individuals from 6 parties, with ‘controversial’ ones like Thammanat Prompao as Agriculture Minister and Anutin Charnvirakul as Home Affairs Minister.
Somjai Phagaphasvivat, an independent political and economic analyst, argues that the top priority for the new government now is to stimulate the economy. “Growth should rise to 3%. But even if the economy grows to 3%, it will still be the lowest in ASEAN, averaging over 4%. The government should also cooperate with the the private sector to boost tourism, which is crucial to revitalize the economy”.
A recent survey by the Thai Hotels Association (THA) and the Bank of Thailand found that 29% of three-star or lower-rated hotels are seriously affected by interest rate hikes and may need debt restructuring. The Thai tourism industry faces significant challenges due to the sluggish economies of China and Japan and an uneven recovery in Thai tourism, which benefits larger operators. The arrival of Chinese tourists is still waiting while visa restrictions have already been eased considerably.
“This isn’t governance; it’s a power grab by the power-hungry.’
Srettha’s parliamentary victory and Thaksin’s return are a bitter pill for Pita Limjaroenrat, whose campaign upset the army and monarchy by promising a final change after nine years.
The established military-conservative elites, who remain wary of the Move Forward Party’s promise to change the controversial lèse-majesté law, may also be given a reprieve in the meantime, as the MPF is in the opposition.
The leading international concern will be whether the new government can hold its own against the growing rivalry between the US and China and the military’s efforts to reconcile with Beijing. Another question is what role Thailand wants to continue playing within ASEAN to increase pressure on Myanmar’s military dictatorship and alleviate the bloody war against the Burmese people.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) also remains deeply concerned about the systemic issues entrenched in Thailand’s current political and legal frameworks. Not only do these problems impede the complete representation of the will of the people, but they have also been used repeatedly to curtail fundamental freedoms.
“It is concerning that the current system in Thailand has allowed the largest winning political party in the elections to be excluded from the ruling coalition. The skewness of the system appears to be the biggest factor; therefore, extensive reforms are needed to improve the status quo. Crucial to this is the complete revision of the current constitution drafted by the junta, in which all amendments made should pave the way for Thailand to embody democracy fully. This democracy actively defends and protects human rights for all,” said Charles Santiago, co-chair of the APHR and former member of the Malaysian Parliament.
The always frenzied Thai social media is already entirely betting on the end of this coalition.
* Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change (https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-981-10-7035-8) and co-editor of SDG18 Communication for All, Volumes 1 & 2, 2023 (https://link.springer.com/book/9783031191411 [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo Credit: ibtimes.co.uk
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