July 4, 2011

Questions on Pending Thai Election: Bloomberg

On 27th June I emailed responses to three questions from Bloomberg News about the pending election.

1. What's at stake for the military/monarchy in this election?

This is the election in which fundamental decisions about Thailand's future will have to be made. I do not mean by that the electoral choices of the Thai people which have long been subverted even before the 2006 coup, but how the incumbent royalist and militarist elite will react to the electorate's choice and, conversely, what strategies the pro-Thaksin counter elite will employ.

The key question should the Democrat Party not have sufficient numbers to form a coalition government, is whether its backers in the anti-Thaksin establishment will remain in denial about the recurrent rejection they face at the ballot box. This is a possibility. Should they choose that path, no doubt with splits along the way, they know that more violence will follow. The military-on-military and militia violence witnessed during April-May last year may return with greater intensity. So, it's a high cost strategy, so high its protagonists may not win over the less hawkish elements.

Undoubtedly, there will be some brinkmanship, as those most committed to the 2006 coup hold to the hope their long denied objectives of breaking Thaksin forces can still be executed. But the last five years prove otherwise, and they now confront a mobilised movement with depth well beyond anyone imagined. My guess is that even though there are elements willing to go for broke, the exhausting toll of the last five years weighs very heavily on those who rode with the coupsters, but who are dismayed by the securitisation of Thailand's politics and the repositioning of hardline military and royalist elements. The highly corrupt and repressive nature of elements of the current Thai regime, by which I different forces that are articulated to the state apparatuses not just the government, is not what they wished for when they tacitly supported the coup. They really did envisage an elite liberal outcome. But they bought into a logic of decisionist politics which meant embracing highly repressive politics rather than abiding by constitutional niceties, in order to to defeat a perceived enemy. But that repressiveness has almost become a norm, not the exception. These fellow travellers of the 2006 coup might be eating humble pie and make a conditional deal. Thaksin for his part will be happy to oblige. Bringing some kind of settlement together in the form of a smooth transition will be extremely difficult. At the same time, there might be an alliance of convenience among the authoritarians in both camps. Thus, think of the future as one of further mutations and splits.

2. What would a win for Pheu Thai mean for the establishment that backed the coup? What is the likelihood that Pheu Thai will be able to govern?

There is certainly a chance that Pheu Thai may have the numbers to form government in coalition. Such a prospect, for the anti Thaksin forces will be a loss of face, and will threaten their existing position. For some of them it will mean permanent marginalisation from the centres of political life. Thaksin is an astute coalition builder and one can expect that in the event of a Pheu Thai government being formed, the chairs will quickly be rearranged and space made available to everyone who plays the new game. But some soft payback can be expected; it will also be a time for the upper echelons to consider retirement. The other option facing the incumbent forces - to fight a Pheu Thai victory - would mean buying into a genuine rewriting of Thailand's constitutional settlement well beyond the electoral democracy it still adheres to (notwithstanding recent retreats). The charade of the Peoples Alliance for Democracy's "new politics" , of limiting the number of elected MPS and moving towards a form of selectocracy might be one outcome. Even though it has looked like a fanatical reactionary fringe stoking up war and hatred for the last year, the seemingly anti-political agenda of "new politics" has powerful backers, who are waiting for an opportune moment.

So, oddly, Thailand may face a situation in which the western-oriented royalist establishment, by refusing to accept a Pheu Thai victory, faces up to its failure to win in the game of elite liberal democracy by abandoning the facade of democracy and move towards a more transparently authoritarian politics.

Alternatively, should Thaksin finally emerge triumphant (and I see this as the long term scenario) you would have a government claiming a democratic mandate pursuing a look East and South policy, and merging populist rhetoric with authoritarian structures. Either prospect looks disturbing if your interest is in genuine democracy.

As for the movement of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the redshirts, will it be able to hold any new pro-Thaksin government to democratic standards? The sad fact is that for all its shedding light on double standards and political hypocrisy, it has only done so selectively. When will the UDD publicly be honest about the authoritarian nature of the Thaksin years?

That said, we can not discount the possibility that a Pheu Thai victory will reluctantly be accepted, and new energies will be put into using constitutional avenues (sanctioned by the 2007 military sponsored constitution) and political strategies to fight Thaksin at the next election. Such an extraordinary outcome would mean a public return of democracy, while various machinations take place behind the scenes. That is what most democracies amount to these days.

3. What are the prospects of a power-sharing arrangement between Thaksin and his opponents?

Apart from hardline elements who mistakenly view Thaksin as the nadir of monarchist Thailand, my guess is the economic and political costs of protracted conflict is now weighing heavily on some of the incumbents who still want to steer Thailand to a prosperous and modern future. There must be considerable distress felt in royalist circles at the anti-royalist feeling that is emerging among rank and file redshirts and frankly the only genuine way to stop this growing is by bringing Thaksin back into the fold. Thaksin has time and time again shown his willingness to abide by most public protocols in relation to the monarchy. The inane propaganda efforts of the various security agencies are a lesson in blowback and the stupidity of force feeding people with "correct ideas". The more men in khaki wax lyrical about the royal family the more their standing is diminished. Thaksin has always signalled his willingness to do a deal and moreover is happy to deploy royalist imagery. This is what he offers and no one else can play this card. This will be the basis of any power-sharing arrangement.

In some senses the stark choice facing the rival camps is continued conflict at the cost of mutual destruction and seeing Thailand meltdown, or some step back from this and working out a formula for power sharing or at the very least a situation in which a "loyal opposition" has a credible chance of electoral victory at the following election. And should something be "agreed" this raises another question, how would such a historic anti-climax be received among those mobilised yellow and red -shirted citizens. This takes us to the final of the many unknowns of the post election period: the potential of a rising democratic mass in the face of this intra-elite bargaining and game-playing. Of all the possible game changers, this seems the least unlikely on the balance of probabilities. I'd like to be proven wrong.