Thailand’s PM Yingluck faces judicial as well as military coup

January 24, 2014

Not only Thailand’s generals, but also its judges, are manoeuvring to oust beleaguered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from government.

The Constitutional Court today provided a legal opening to postpone an election set for February 2, which Yingluck called to reaffirm her mandate after months of anti-government demonstrations, and which she would almost certainly win.

There was, however, a slight hesitancy in the ruling of the Constitutional Court, unlike six years ago when it twice brought down governments loyal to Yingluck’s elder brother and former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

This time the court ruled that the Election Commission has the right to postpone the election if it believes there is too much social unrest for a fair ballot. But, the commission can only do this if it reaches agreement with the government on a new date for the election.

Even so, the possibility of a judicial coup joins an already formidable array of threats to Yingluck’s government, which was elected with a large majority in 2011.

Thailand’s military commanders have already said they may intervene if street violence gets out of hand. Nine people have died in anti-government demonstrations launched last November by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee ((PDRC), led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban.

To try to forestall a military coup, Yingluck on Wednesday declared a 60-day state of emergency. The decree gives security agencies powers to impose curfews, detain suspects, limit gatherings and censor the media, but Yingluck is reported to have instructed police to handle demonstrators with restraint.

The third challenge to Yingluck’s government comes from the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which has confirmed it is investigating the Prime Minister over a program to buy rice from farmers at above-market prices. Plunging world commodity prices have left the government seriously out of pocket and owing over $5 billion to rice farmers, whose support is essential to Yingluck’s parliamentary power.

This probe joins an investigation of 308 members of parliament, most of them from Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, after the Constitutional Court ruled a new amnesty law is illegal. This law would give absolution to everyone involved in the violence and almost constant protests that have roiled Thailand since a 2006 military coup which deposed Yingluck’s elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Chief among the beneficiaries of the amnesty would be Thaksin. He now lives in self-imposed exile after being convicted in absentia of abuse of power but, according to Suthep and the anti-government PDRC, he continues to rule Thailand, with his sister acting as proxy.

At the heart of Thailand’s eight years of political turmoil is the utter contempt in which Thaksin is held by many among the country’s institutional elites and the urban middle class. They mistrust his populism, the affection and support held for him among the rural poor, and his apparent disdain for the aristocratic classes and especially the monarchy.

There is also outrage at the undeniable whiff of corruption that has always surrounded Thaksin, who rose from being an ordinary policeman to the country’s richest entrepreneur, ruling a massive communications conglomerate. He also has a long record of levelling psychopathic anger at those who oppose or disagree with him.

The objective of the PDRC, its firebrand leader Suthep and the opposition Democratic Party of Abhisit Vejjajiva, in whose 2008 to 2011 government Suthep served, is to break the grip of Thaksin and his sister on elective politics.

To this end, the PDRC wants next month’s election dumped in favour of an appointed “People’s Council,” which would run the country and embark on fundamental electoral reform.

More extreme elements within the PDRC question whether Thailand’s basic concept of one person-one vote should be kept. They favour a system whereby the votes of educated urban voters would be worth more than those of the rural poor in selecting a government.

More moderate factions within the PDRC favour a system in which only about 30 per cent of members of parliament would be elected and the rest chosen by various forms of appointment.

Although many Thais, including Abhisit’s Democratic Party to which the PDRC is aligned, view these objectives as anti-democratic, they are not entirely alien to Thailand. The country has a long history of creating administrations by blending elected and appointed officials with selected scions of aristocratic political families.

At this juncture, however, it is hard to see a clean solution to Thailand’s turmoil.

If the election is held on February 2, it will most likely be won by Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party. But her mandate is almost certain to be flawed and the validity of the election nullified by the courts.

The PDRC support in southern Thailand is strong enough for the group to be able to block registration in enough districts to ensure that the new parliament does not have members elected to 95 per cent of the seats, as the 2007 constitution requires. The overturning of the election will almost certainly bring Yingluck and Thaksin’s supporters out on to the streets and the same kind of violence that has characterised the PDRC protests.

Other possibilities are another form of judicial coup, such as happened in 2008 when the courts removed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers and eventually installed Abhisit and the Democrats in government. This also would bring Thaksin supporters out onto the streets as it did in 2011, when the army was sent in to smash protesters’ blockades and close to 100 people were killed.

A third possibility is that the army will take over, as it has done or attempted 18 times in the last 80 years. But, as has been made abundantly clear since the 2006 coup, this will only be a prelude to yet more upheaval.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014