October 9, 2008

Q & A on Thai crisis

Bloomberg email interview conducted on the afternoon of October 8th.

Q. Just wondering your thoughts on the latest Thai developments. Specifically, does this represent a major change in tactics for the PAD?

A. A stalemate between the pro-and anti-Thaksin forces has been the key characteristic of 2008. Each has its support base in state agencies and the media and each has tried to paint the other as destroying Thai democracy. The arrest of the PAD leaders was clearly an attempt to break PAD in order clear obstacles to constitutional amendments.

While amendments are warranted, given the coup-origins of the 2007 Constitution, the PPP's transparent intent was to destroy the corruption cases against Mr Thaksin and others associated with Thai Rak Thai and PPP, and to revoke anti-Thaksin appointments to the various "independent agencies of the state" such as the National Counter Corruption Commission.

The PPP selection of Somchai, Thaksin's brother in law, as Prime Minister was effectively an announcement that the pro-Thaksin forces were going for broke, which in the current context means that a zero-sum game between the opposing sides is in play.

Q. Do you see an end game in all this?

A. Several outcomes are possible, none knowable: a coup could be launched against the government or there could be a pro-government coup, perhaps in the form of a temporary martial law/state of emergency.

Possibly, a coup could also move against both sides (pro-Thaksin and pro-PAD) and enact a tough period of military rule under a civilian prime minister to beat down both claimants on power in order to establish order. The new regime might well incorporate elements of the PAD 'new politics' agenda but probably would cut loose PAD's social base.

The government could mobilise a mass support base onto the streets to beat back an anti-government coup. This base has so far failed to show itself other than at the ballot box and rallies of indifferent size.

Perhaps the coalition will splinter and defect to a new coalition formation to pre-empt a coup. Remember, factions in the governing coalition are pragmatic. Before PPP elected Somchai as prime minister it was momentarily possible that a Democrat led coalition government might have taken shape as some elements in the PPP and the minor parties were weary of fighting all the way and were ready to do a deal.

Another possibility is the emergence of a government of national unity, which has been flagged several times. Such a government would presumably be convened under the threat of a coup and it would most likely cut the Thaksin link.

As always, predictions are always overtaken by reality.

What can be said is that at some point in the next week an enduring resolution to the stalemate may well emerge. Events of historic proportion are often dictated by a logic that defies transparent interest, a number of realignments might emerge which no one can imagine.

Q. If a new election is called, do you think it's likely a Thaksin-linked party will win again, and if so will this conflict just continue indefinitely?

A. If an anti-government coup occurs I would expect that this time there would be greater repression and manipulation to ensure that in any future election a repeat of the PPP victory would not occur: the school burnings that occurred in 2007 in the North and Northeast might well be a symbol of what will come.

If the House is dissolved and a new election is held and the current balance of popularity remains in place, a PPP led coalition government would be the most likely outcome, although that would depend on the stand taken by the minor parties.

Q. What does the current fight say about Thailand's democracy?

A. Thai democracy is in a state of immolation.

Additional Commentary/10/10/08

Odd, given the massive erosion of the THaksin/PPP position through the court system, that I should have missed adding a role for the courts in the various scenarios discussed above.