Thailand’s revolving door elites

The next rocky chapter in the battle for Thailand’s soul is under way.

Thai caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra smiles as she arrives for a court case at the Constitutional Court in Bangkok [EPA]

Thailand was plunged into further political chaos on May 7 after its Supreme Court ruled that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had abused her power and so had to step down.

Commerce Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan will replace Yingluck. The caretaker government, populated by her allies, says it will press ahead with plans for an election on July 20.

Yingluck’s supporters are calling the Constitutional Court intervention a judicial coup. Nine judges unanimously concluded Yingluck manipulated her position as prime minister when she replaced former security chief, Thawil Pliensri, an opposition favourite, with her brother-in-law. In the eyes of her adversaries, the move smacked of nepotism of the highest order.

Elites in Thailand have historically fought protracted, sometimes violent, battles for control of the state as part of a revolving door power swap. Albeit female, Yingluck is part of this mix of business leaders, bureaucrats and military commanders that have ruled Thailand since a so-called democratic revolution in 1932.

Underlying the titanic clash between the Pheu Thai Party and its opponents – led by Suthep Thaugsuban – is the question of political legitimacy and moral authority. Who has the right to run Thailand? Kings were forced to relinquish their divine right to rule in 1932. The monarchy remains a central pillar to Thai culture and politics. The majority of Thais revere King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thailand has had 17 charters or constitutions and 28 prime ministers since that time. Many were army men who reigned for less than 365 days. Nine prime ministers have rotated into power since 2006. More stable democracies like the United States, South Korea and England can claim three leaders in charge at most.

Yingluck herself is a scion of a business dynasty. Her brother is telecoms tycoon turned political populist Thaksin Shinawatra. After five years as prime minister, a military coup ousted Thaksin in 2006 on the grounds of corruption, conflict of interest and authoritarianism.

A messy showdown

This time, two sets of Thai elites are locked into a messy showdown. In one camp resides Bangkok’s wealthier classes and southern supporters. They are establishment and royalist.

In another, more crowded camp, are followers of the Pheu Thai party led by Yingluck.

For now, the Bangkok-based elite has clinched victory. But even recent history shows no Thai prime minister can rest on his, or her, laurels.

Thaksin’s departure both capped a period of political volatility in Thailand and marked the start of another.

After the generals seized control, came food lover Samak Sundaravej, whose appetite for hosting cooking shows while in office landed him in hot water with the Constitutional Court. Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law was nominated prime minister, but then fled with his government to Don Muang airport after anti-government protesters besieged the parliament building. Barely three months in office himself, Somchai’s successor lasted just 15 days.

Enter Abhisit Vejjajiva, bringing with him great hopes for steering Thailand onto a stable path. British born and educated at Eton and Oxford, Abhisit was immensely palatable to the West. But his slick persona was badly tarnished after he presided as prime minister over a crackdown on anti-government protesters that killed around 90 people in Bangkok in 2010. Under Yingluck’s reign, Abhisit was formally charged with murder in December 2013.

As leader of the Democrat Party, Abhisit is regaining traction as a force in Thai politics. Despite the indictment for murder, he’s leveraging the political vacuum to rebrand himself as a mediator, devising a plan for reform his enemies say is wildly thin on substance.

Given the current turbulence, outsiders could be forgiven for thinking of Thailand as a political basket case.

Six months of street protests, and a polarising schism resulting in governing gridlock are chipping away at the economy. The International Monetary Fund recently halved its forecast of GDP growth in the country from 5.2 percent to 2.5 percent. The country is in danger of morphing from Southeast Asia’s second largest economy into an economic laggard.

The current fragility is spooking investors and tourists. Foreign and domestic investors have temporarily – and possibly permanently – shelved plans for major infrastructure projects. The relative calm before the departure of Yingluck and nine of her ministers was lifting the spirits of travel operators keen to navigate the industry back on course after months of turmoil. Now a deep gloom will descend over the sector, which accounts for around 6 percent of Thailand’s GDP.

Also of concern is the erosion of Thailand’s political authority in the region. The nation’s economic clout also gave it political legitimacy. It has been a stalwart member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). During Myanmar’s isolation, Thailand adeptly managed a relationship between the military regime, Asean and the rest of the world. New challenges confronting the bloc include territorial disputes with China and Myanmar’s shaky transition to democracy. As Asean gears up to economic integration in 2015, it can’t afford another fragile state weakening its flanks.

Democracy a victim

The quagmire is resulting in two main losers: democracy and the Thai people.

Dissident writer Giles Ungpakorn wrote that Yingluck’s dismissal is, “merely the latest in a long line of military or judicial coups since September 2006 that have sought to reduce the democratic space and disenfranchise the majority of the population”.

In a televised news conference on May 7, Yingluck said, “From now on, no matter what situation I am in, I will walk on the path of democracy. I am sad that I will not be able to serve you after this.”

Yingluck’s enemies label her as a proxy for her controversial brother, who now resides in self-imposed exile in Dubai. Proxy or not, Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party was elected by a landslide victory in 2011. Her brother’s popularity was reflected in electoral victories and his novel cultivation of a public personality. This strategy only played on the insecurities of Bangkok’s establishment, wedging the social groups further apart, according to leading academics, Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker.

For all their riches, the Shinawatras were elected by popular vote. Analysts predict the next election will propel Pheu Thai back in power.

Underlying the titanic clash between the Pheu Thai Party and its opponents – led by Suthep Thaugsuban – is the question of political legitimacy and moral authority. Who has the right to run Thailand? Kings were forced to relinquish their divine right to rule in 1932. The monarchy remains a central pillar to Thai culture and politics. The majority of Thais revere King Bhumibol Adulyadej. At 86, Bhumibol is the world’s longest reigning monarch and Thais seek solace in him as a steadying force in turbulent times. 

Still, the wavering in Thailand among strategic vested groups is crippling the country. The ordinary mass of Thais has been merely caught up between these opposing factions. All said and done, most people just want to go back to work, school and get on with their lives.

The lesson here is that parliamentary democracy and the processes that form its spine have failed in Thailand. That could have potentially explosive results, particularly if the Red Shirts feel locked out of a political system, which they perceive as serving the objectives of their foes.

While the next rocky chapter in the battle for Thailand’s soul might be under way, it’s time that this recurrent cycle of political chess boarding ends. It’s not where Thailand, its people, or its soul, should be heading.

Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business policy in the Asia-Pacific.