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What next after judicial deja vu?

 What next after judicial deja vu?

Published: 13/07/2012 at 02:18 AM

Bangkok Post Newspaper section: News


The sense of deja vu that pervades Thailand's political landscape in the lead-up to the Constitution Court's decision Friday on whether the lower house has violated the charter by trying to amend it harbours short- and longer-term implications.

In the immediate term, the court can either back off to allow the legislation to run its course or opt for a jugular verdict that would unseat the national assembly and upend the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. A middling outcome would be to hedge against wholesale revision of the charter and to circumscribe amendments to certain articles and sections.

Beyond the verdict, however, is the likely intensification of the tension and turmoil that have beset Thailand for the past seven years. Thailand will remain in a holding pattern, with movements only at the margins but no clear and credible policy directions. Neither fundamental reforms nor vital adjustments to the way things are done around here will be undertaken in the interim. Thailand's problem is that those who keep winning elections are not allowed to rule, whereas others who ultimately call the shots cannot win elections.

To be sure, a tentative political compromise appeared reachable until recently. That it became ephemeral caught many by surprise. Following the July 2011 elections and the devastating floods last year, the Yingluck government seemed poised to soldier on and govern. Ms Yingluck's popularity ratings went up for her flood-management efforts even while her government's public approval sank due to inter-agency squabbling and incompetence. By early this year, a tentative truce between her exiled brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and his opponents in the establishment emerged with promising signs of a longer-term reconciliation.

Ms Yingluck was given some space to manoeuvre on governance and policy, access to powers-that-be, such as Privy Council President Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, and even a royal decoration as a sign of establishment accommodation. In return, she left the army's high command untouched, made the monarchy untouchable by strictly enforcing the lese majeste law against overt dissenters to the crown, and persuaded her brother to stay in exile.

These delicate truce terms have unravelled. Owing to his characteristic impatience and misreading of truce signals, Thaksin opted to expedite his return.

While Ms Yingluck took a decidedly aloof stance, the Thaksin-controlled Pheu Thai Party came up with a two-pronged homecoming strategy. One was to legislatively ram through a reconciliation bill that would clear the slate by exonerating politically-driven charges and convictions since the military coup in September 2006. The other, less immediate in its impact, was to pass a law to set up a constitution drafting assembly to amend the charter which had been crafted and promulgated during the coup period.

Thaksin's establishment opponents quickly went on the offensive. The anti-Thaksin yellow- and multi-colour shirts sprung back into the streets. The opposing Democrat Party went all out with parliamentary walkouts and physical scuffles, and took part in anti-Thaksin street protests. While army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha denied coup rumours, the court issued an injunction to stop parliament from passing the charter change bill in its third and final reading on the grounds that it would change Thailand's constitutional monarchy.

Unsurprisingly, the pro-Thaksin red shirts were enraged at what they saw as being another judicial subversion of their elected government after two prior dissolutions of Pheu Thai's predecessors, the Thai Rak Thai Party in May 2007 and the People's Power Party in December 2008. Consequently, the red shirts have also assembled in the streets.

What manifests next is uncertain but its structural sources are clear. The court can rule the charter change bill to be unconstitutional and put another stop to a Thaksin-aligned government. In such an event, the red shirts will go on the march and will prod Pheu Thai into a showdown with the court and other establishment sources of power. They see the judiciary, along with the army and the Privy Council, as going against their electoral choices and rights. If it survives, Thaksin's Pheu Thai may pause on the charter change and reconciliation bills to enable the Yingluck government to continue in office.

Meanwhile, the Democrat and the royalist non-red colours will be vigilant in opposing Thaksin's return and basic changes to the monarchy-centred political structure that was augmented by the coup-induced constitution. They will use all means available to maintain the status quo.

In some ways, Thailand's holding pattern is rooted in what can be described as a royalist lockdown. All Thais have lived under this reign. Its most glorious years transpired during the Cold War, when communism was kept at bay and economic development was achieved.

In the early 21st century, the monarchy is challenged by electoral rule with its unscrupulous politicians and political parties as a source of legitimacy. Thais used to be just loyal subjects but more and more of them also now feel like informed citizens with a stake in and access to the political system. The Thai dilemma is how to amalgamate and synchronise the monarchy-centred political order with the imperatives of democratic rule in an acceptable constitution.

The lockdown represents a Catch-22 situation of sorts.

Reforms and adjustments are best considered at this time during the remainder of the reign but they are precluded by a show of respect that things must remain the same as long as the reign lasts.

However it turns out, the judicial verdict today is likely to complicate and exacerbate political matters and keep the necessary compromise and a new consensus farther out of reach. While the manifestations, manoeuvres and machinations are likely to be destabilising, the patently resilient Thai economy and people have somehow priced in much of what has passed and lies ahead. This collective character is likely to triumph over the political convulsions to come when conditions and circumstances become more conducive for genuine reconciliation.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

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