Thai recipe for a coup

The unrelenting stand of anti-government protestors in Thailand appears increasingly like an open invitation to the country’s non-democratic forces to step in and take charge. The protestors, banded together as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, have already won several rounds in their seven-month battle against the Pheu Thai party, but their demand for “reforms” before another election is held has an all-too familiar ring: in Pakistan last year, a cleric rallied followers and laid siege to Islamabad to demand that the elected government be dismissed and a caretaker government of unelected people be appointed to rid the system of corrupt politicians before elections were held. It is a measure of how matters have changed in both countries that the Pakistani establishment did not succumb to the temptation, but Thailand may be fast sliding towards it. Last year, in an effort to calm down protestors, Yingluck Shinawatra, who became Prime Minister in 2011 after leading the Pheu Thai to victory three years earlier, downgraded her government to a caretaker and announced early elections in February. Though the opposition Democratic Party claims it has nothing to do with the street protests, it boycotted the election. Pheu Thai won but the victory was annulled by the Constitutional court. Ms. Yingluck remained caretaker, but was last week removed from office by the same court on charges of misusing the powers of her office. The verdict has polarised the country further, with pro-Shinawatra ‘red shirts’ convinced there is a witch-hunt against the party and its leadership. The new caretaker Prime Minister, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, wants to hold a planned re-election on July 20, but the protestors, led by the former MP Suthep Thaugsuban and the Democrats, are firmly against it.

The larger battle behind the crisis is between the royalist-military establishment and urban elites represented by the Democratic Party, and populist forces unleashed by Pheu Thai whose political power is located in the rural areas. The prolonged showdown has had its impact on the economy: investors are losing confidence, more tourists are staying away, affecting a mainstay sector, and the growth rate has been revised downward twice since November. The King and the Royal Thai Army have stayed away from playing an overt role or taking sides in the developments so far, but if the impasse continues, voices that are now calling for a military intervention will grow louder. That would be a step in the wrong direction. The political leaders would be far better off reaching a compromise.