Round and round we go. March 21st saw the Constitutional Court of Thailand, which has a history of rulings against Thaksin Shinawatra and his proxy parties, side with the opposition yet again by declaring the February 2nd general election void.
This was an election that had seen around 20 million Thais come out to cast their vote, presumably with a view to ending a political crisis which has been raging since November. Instead, a group of militants decided it was acceptable to delegitimise the vote, blockading polling stations and terrorising election officials across Bangkok and southern provinces.
The current situation firmly calls into question the future of Thai democracy. Can it withstand the concerted efforts by the establishment to see off Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party?
February’s election was always set to be high-stakes. The Democrat Party, led by the upper crust Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, boycotted the polls; a decision many saw as indicating the party’s disregard for democracy, upset at its failure to win a national election in over 20 years, and anger that Thaksin’s brand of populism still holds so much sway in Thailand.
Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of former premier Thaksin, had been hoping for a clear, decisive mandate in order to ease tensions, and prevent further politically motivated violence. Street movement People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), closely aligned with the Democrats, argued elections “before reform” would be futile.
Suthep Thaugsuban, PDRC chief, is still insistent that he will continue to push for his “People’s Council”, even if that means undermining the next general election, mooted to be held in May. Thaugsuban wants the unelected council to take over the place of government with a brief to pursue radical political change.
Shinawatras’s red shirts and even Democrat Party sympathisers are deeply suspicious of Thaugsuban, as they fear he favours authoritarianism with his claims of wanting to “eradicate the Thaksin regime” and its “lackeys”. The question remains, how can any “democratic” country launch a bold reform programme if there is no elected government to undertake it?
This situation is the latest in a long line of political crises that has afflicted Thailand – military coups, counter-coups, and now judicial coups are almost de rigueur. The only constant has been King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Unlike in previous occasions, so far he has not been drawn into commenting. Despite the King’s efforts in the early ‘90s to give power to the people when he forged the way for a new political settlement, democracy is in a lamentable state today.
Fast forward to September 2006 when Thaksin was ousted, and the subsequent new constitution adopted through a rigged referendum (the military junta made it illegal to criticise the draft in the run-up to the vote). Restricting civil liberties and political rights, the “Coup Constitution” arguably laid the roots for the recent dramatic twists and turns in Thai politics. For example, the reduction in the Constitutional Court’s membership from 15 to 9 judges has clearly concentrated decision-making in the hands of a few. The Constitutional Court’s recent annulment of the election by a 6:3 majority vote outweighed the views of the 20 million citizens who voted.
The reality is that underlying the ruling of course is the illegal activity of Thaugsuban’s PDRC which disrupted the elections in the first place. Fingers could also be pointed at the independent Election Commission for its tardiness in scheduling the catch-up voting dates; they had only managed to stage five re-runs, moving the rest to late April. They were surely well aware of the constitutional 30-day timeframe for the new Parliament to start working after an election.
The country has no elected government and there is significant uncertainty ahead, as the establishment redoubles its efforts to further destabilise Yingluck Shinawatra and her party. The National Anti-Corruption Commission’s investigation over Ms Yingluck’s involvement in the controversial rice policy may prove a portent, particularly if it leads to her impeachment. Thailand may not be under a military coup but the country is clearly divided with no easy resolution in sight. It may again be a matter of time before tanks are back on the streets.