2B Situation Report: The Crusade to Minimize Thaksin
There has long been an attempt to manipulate the political situation to minimize Thaksin influence—but it will likely not involve “tanks on the street” as in a traditional coup. “Soft pressure” from the establishment is the sort of pressure that created and holds together the present coalition government.
The Plan of the Establishment
It is important to understand what the establishment is trying to accomplish–stall and isolate Thaksin. While the continued stalemate and Thaksin’s tenacity have led to broader discussions of reforming the Thai system and ignited populist measures for the poor, in the corridors of power everything is driven by the immediate goal to stall Thaksin and make it clear he cannot return to rule. His continual infusion of money, agitation and revolution from abroad are seen as the underlying causes of the recent years of unrest. The Red Shirt attempts to paralyze the capital and overthrow the government on the street clearly demonstrated Thaksin’s resolve and the lengths to which he is willing to go. Couple this with [redacted] and many in the establishment feel it is key to thwart Thaksin from returning to the system at any cost. Pardons and reforms for everyone else are still on the table.
The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) was once doing just that—opposing Thaksin and his creeping one-man rule—but have now morphed into several factions with competing and Quixotic dreams of fixing the entire Thai political system. However, this is a goal that no one group can accomplish. The Thai system and world is too amorphous and broadly balanced for any one group to fundamentally change the way things work.
Focusing on New Elections
It appears that all sides are intently focusing on the opportunity of new elections. The earlier questions over whether another season of street protests to cause the government to collapse will be called has been answered. Instead, Red Shirts are gathering to listen to speeches insisting they turn out the vote for the Pheu Thai.
There are still several ways in which things can still go bad. One is if Pheu Thai fragments too much before the election and erodes Thaksin’s chances of influencing a new government. In such a case it could lead to Thaksin turning to the Red Shirts again to cause trouble on the streets. However, Thaksin has been able to hold his MPs together so far and it seems that Thaksin sees various and ever evolving ways he could put together a coalition—or at least plausibly call foul if Pheu Thai is excluded from the next government. So for now it is all about elections.
Another variable might be a traditional coup, but this is an outside possibility. The military have no desire for direct rule as long as they are certain of moving behind-the-scenes to block a Thaksin landslide. A traditional coup before the election would indicate military desperation at a lack of options which does not seem the situation at this time.
In most instances, reports of an upcoming “coup” should be understood as a “silent” coup or interference from a “third hand.” These are both common Thai concepts and are what the Red Shirts and Pheu Thai have largely been complaining about when they warn about a coup. They mean a behind-the-scenes manipulation that blocks Pheu Thai (and hence Thaksin) from power.
Waiting for the Jackpot – from Manager, March 29, 2011
The words on the sign: The PM is sleeping and waiting for the jackpot.
Chavalit and Mingkwan lay on the ground with mouths open, hoping for fruit, or the good luck of having Thaksin name them the Pheu Thai PM candidate, fall into their mouths.
Mingkwan sees Purachai Piemsomboon set up a blanket to lay under the tree too and says Purachai’s nickname: Pu!?
At right Purachai says: Let me be the other one [to wait]
Choosing a Pheu Thai PM Candidate
The establishment is betting that political figures once relegated to political retirement by Thaksin will see an opportunity to once again taste power on their own terms. During elections they might make noises about Thaksin’s agenda, but nothing will ever happen once they are in power. It is thought that these figures have no real desire to first gain power and then bring Thaksin back to take over their positions.
This is why Thaksin has had to be so careful about appointing leaders for the (now defunct) People Power Party and the Pheu Thai Party. Leaders either have to be weak political nonentities who do not have their own factions or family members who can be counted on not to betray him. The danger of having ambitious men like Chalerm at the helm of Pheu Thai would mean the party would swiftly spin out of Thaksin’s control.
Just to note that controlling a government is the ultimate prize and ultimate source of power on the ground. A sitting government effectively controls the police, the courts and thus the pace and character of justice. They control the purse strings and spoils of power. The military, bureaucracy, and monarchy function as informal checks and balances on the Thai political system. The government cannot trample on these institutions without repercussions, but if they balance things right, they can be a font of money, policies and policy enforcement that gives them real power.
Possible Election Outcomes
In previous years, each Democrat government seemed to generate public weariness over their slow and nearly static performance. This led to public dissatisfaction and a switch to voting for more dynamic, but more corrupt politicians—like the governments of Chavalit and Banharn in the 1990s. The public soon wearied of these governments as well and would shift back to the Democrats which are then seen as a more professional and upstanding in comparison.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, we are at the end of a cycle in which the public may again feel weary of the deliberate and cautious plodding of Democrat policies. This feeling could be heightened in the face of big promises by the Pheu Thai. The Democrats have further been hit by corruption and unrelenting flooding in various areas of the country. They have been mercilessly pilloried as dictatorial murderers by the Red Shirts.
Despite the events of the past years when the Red Shirts, buoyed by the Pheu Thai, tried to overthrow the government on the street, by and large their base appears faithful. Thais are pragmatic and forgiving (no one is ever really finished in Thai politics no matter what they do) and even after the events of past years, if the Pheu Thai can promise prosperity, they stand a good chance of election success.
Where exactly the election lands is anyone’s guess. There is still a period of time during which major developments in party formation or disintegration can occur. However, despite the intense behind-the-scenes enticements on both sides, MP buying and vote buying can only go so far. No matter what the scenario, the Democrats and Pheu Thai appear to be poised to be the first and second parties in terms of MPs in one order or another.
Establishment hopes are being pinned on a solution that re-focuses political parties on their own goals and thus minimizes and isolates Thaksin. Thaksin will be pre-loading the local and international press with information to the effect that, if Pheu Thai does not prevail, this indicates that the elections were manipulated and illegitimate.
The election outcomes boil down to a few problematic scenarios.
One likely outcome is that a ruling government will be cobbled together that somehow includes Pheu Thai, but in a way that the party cannot dominate. This would cause a weak and unstable government grouping as Pheu Thai seeks to assert itself.
Another scenario is that Pheu Thai wins many seats, but other parties unite to form a government instead. If a government like this is formed or if a unity government is pushed together by the military to mute the Pheu Thai, then Thaksin will once again call the Red Shirts onto the streets with calls of unfairness. This scenario is already acknowledged by the Pheu Thai and has resulted in threats that chaos would ensue if Pheu Thai wins a majority, but is blocked from forming a government.
It remains unlikely that the military would allow a Thaksin-controlled party to control the government outright. The preferred solution is to block and stall Thaksin in every way so a traditional coup is not necessary.
Equally important is merely the perception that the military will not allow Pheu Thai to govern again as a Thaksin proxy. The public musterings of troops in the last few days are meant to drive home this point (as well as revealing the extreme military reluctance in staging a traditional, “tanks on the street” coup–as in the “coup via TV” in 2008).
Pheu Thai realization that they can never hold power is meant to encourage their MPs and factions to gravitate towards groupings that allow them to be part of a government in the future. The danger that Pheu Thai might be mired down in legal cases along with the Red Shirts resulting in disbandment is also being used to scare MPs from the party.
However, any election result that does not result in a government Thaksin can control to effect a pardon means that the Red Shirts once again will be called onto the streets to topple to government. The establishment hope is the Pheu Thai becomes too fragmented, small, or removed from Thaksin control so it can be part of the government. With a diminished Pheu Thai in the government, it would make it much harder to use the Red Shirts to claim unfairness and stymie Thaksin’s goals for a pardon for himself.
Cat lover? – Arun, Krungtepturakit, April 4, 2008
Loves the cat or does not want the cat to get the fish – The tag on the cage reads “Commander-in-Chief” meaning C-in-C Anupong. [This cartoon points out the close relationship Samak is creating with the C-in-C–ostensibly to forestall a military coup. Samak, a well-known cat lover, keeps the C-in-C close to him either because he likes cat or he “does not want the cat to get the fish.” This is an idiomatic expression that means “refuse to give away something that one does not have the right to have” perhaps meaning Samak does not deserve the premiership as a proxy of Thaksin and he does not want to let this slip away to the cat through a coup.]
Replacing the Commander-in-Chief
One scenario sometimes mentioned is, if a Thaksin-directed Pheu Thai gains power somehow, there could be a preemptive coup if the Commander-in-Chief fears he might be replaced with a Thaksin loyalist. In 1991, the military staged a coup when it believed that the government was planning such a firing—and at that time the issues dividing the government and military were only prosaic power politics and competing business concerns.
Despite all the press this scenario has received, it is probably a non-issue. Previous Thaksin-proxy governments have been savvy and have done everything they could to cozy up to the Commander-in-Chief. Both the Samak and Somchai governments in 2008 made it a top priority to cultivate good relations with the military.
While Prayuth is a different animal than previous Commanders-in-Chief (both as a Thaksin foe and as one not hesitant to act in the face of provocations), he would probably be courted in many ways by a Thaksin government. If a Pheu Thai government tiptoes gently, they could enjoy civil relations with the military as it has in the past.
Pardons and Amnesty
In the Thai world, pardons usually cover victims and perpetrators equally with the goals of reconciliation and harmony placed above justice. A dissatisfied Thai person is expected to resort to violence as a symbol of their dissatisfaction so it is thought key that pardons cover all and that no blame is assigned. To the Western world Thai pardons can seem unfair, but they have served to reunite Thai society in the past—notably after the events of Black May in 1992.
The sticking point here is that, [redacted] When the opposition brings up these sentiments, it strikes at the heart of the carefully constructed public image and serves as a warning to the establishment that if Thaksin’s goals are opposed, [redacted]
[redacted] Possible pardons or amnesty would be modeled to achieve the isolation of Thaksin as his past conviction would stand and mean he would have to remain outside the country to avoid incarceration.
There have long been rumors that a grand plan is on offer in the background—a deal to pardon most or all infractions in recent years along with a return of money to Thaksin—all in an effort for politics to regain a firm footing [redacted]. However, it appears Thaksin is taking a hard line and betting he can have it all back on his terms.
The next challenge is when the five year ban ends for banned Thai Rak Thai politicians in 2012—this will mean another crop of ambitious political figures will be on the loose. The question then will be if these men and women will once again hook their wagons to Thaksin or head off into other factions. It is certain that the background whispers will be that pardons may be fine and that running on Thaksin’s populism may be ok, but Thaksin himself can never return.