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Thailand Crisis: Will a new Premier solve the Turmoil?



by Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal

(September 14, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) With Samak Sundaravej and his entire cabinet, voted for Samak in December 2007, deciding to quit following a Court ruling on 9 Sept demanding resignation for violating constitution, the protesters have got what they primarily want, but, of course, not every thing. Knowing the opposition mood, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) after sticking to its guns, has finally ruled out Samak to be the premier again. PPP re-nominating Samak as prime minister on Sept 11, the party on 12 Sept abandoned move to re-elect Samak. It was expected the choice of a compromise candidate could persuade the demonstrators to abandon the protests that have paralyzed the government and driven tourists away.

On 14 September,Thailand's caretaker government headed by the acting Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat lifted a state of emergency in the capital, nearly two weeks after it was declared following clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters. The emergency in Bangkok was declared on September 2 after anti-government protesters besieging the then prime minister's offices clashed with his supporters in violence that left one person dead and dozens wounded.

Court Intervenes

Thailand's ruling party has abandoned its attempt to get embattled leader Samak reappointed as prime minister. The PPP initially said it would renominate him as prime minister, but early on Sept 12 the vote to re-elect him had to be abandoned because too few MPs turned up. It became apparent that partners in the ruling coalition and some members of his own party opposed his nomination. It has become clear that coalition partners and some PPP lawmakers opposed the decision. The PPP is expected to hold talks with the five other parties that make up the ruling coalition in the next few days. But whoever gets the job will face the unenviable task of calming the fevered political temperature and helping the governing party overcome some formidable challenges. Over the next few months it must face the possibility of being dissolved by the increasingly assertive courts over allegations of vote-buying in the last election. A spokesman later confirmed that Samak was no longer trying to win back his job and he has done “his best as the party leader to preserve democracy".

A series of adverse court rulings also undermined Samak's government. He was forced to step down on September 9 after the Constitutional Court ruled there was a conflict of interest when he was paid to host a TV cooking show while premier. PAD accuses Samak and his government of being a puppet regime for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and now lives in exile in London.

Pressure

The opposition PAD leaders want a largely appointed body to govern the country instead. The protesters are, however, unlikely to give up their demands completely, but it was expected they might end up compromising on their call for the government to be replaced by a largely appointed body. It seemed very unlikely that the protesters would have just packed up and gone home, as the government has expected. They have brought tents, camping equipment and even portaloos to their sit-in at Government House, and show no sign of leaving. Their resolve has been strengthened as Samak's position has become ever more precarious. As well as the PAD, he was also under pressure from the main opposition party and the top army commanders. Elsewhere in Thailand, others have joined in the anti-government cause, holding strikes and disrupting transport routes.

The protesters claim Samak is just a proxy for Thaksin - and would not be satisfied until his PPP party leaves office altogether. The crux of the trouble is the opposition brand Samak as a puppet for Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who the military accused of corruption and ousted in 2006. Samak had vowed not to bow to the protesters' demands, but was eventually forced out earlier this week over an appearance in a TV cookery show that a court said breached the constitution. A spokesman for the PAD said that the group would accept anyone as an interim prime minister as long as Samak went. Parliament is now scheduled to vote on a new prime minister on Sept 17.

Judiciary literally put an end to Samak’s political career. Less than two years ago, the army took over the country after a string of similar protests against Thaksin. But army Chief Anupong Paochinda has ruled out a coup this time, admitting that the last coup failed to solve the underlying issues plaguing Thailand. The military is very powerful, though, and if tensions escalate, the generals might decide it is in the interests of the country to step in.

A failed Strategy

The Thai Election Commission recently ruled that the PPP committed electoral fraud during December's poll and should be dissolved. If the PPP is barred from office - as Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party was last year - the opposition Democrat Party is again likely to be the main winner. But it will probably take months before the Constitutional Court decides whether to accept the Election Commission's recommendation - and the current stalemate is unlikely to last that long. State used brute force when pro-government supporters had clashed with PAD protesters, leaving one person dead and dozens injured. But they have not yet started sustained protests of their own, as they did two years ago to combat the pro-Thaksin rallies.

Prime Minister Samak tried all tactics to stick to power, but failed. First Samak insisted he had a legitimate mandate to govern, after winning December's elections, and is unlikely to just give up and go quietly. Then Samak called for a snap election. At some point, Samak may decide that events are serious enough to warrant dissolving parliament and calling another poll. This was unlikely to solve much, though. The bulk of support for Samak and his People's Power Party (PPP) comes from the rural voters who supported former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra before he was ousted in a coup and barred from politics.

Failing to cut ice with the protesters, Samak offered to hold a national referendum to try to defuse the crisis, asking people what they think about the ongoing protests. But the earliest this could happen is October, because a referendum cannot be held until at least 30 days after being approved by the Senate. Even if it gets Senate approval, and the protesters - from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) - are willing to accept the delay, there is likely to be a lot of disagreement over the wording of the questions and the way the vote is organized. Even the leader of the Senate has voiced skepticism that a referendum will be able to solve the crisis.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been on the Thai throne for more than 60 years, is revered across the nation. He has very limited power under the constitution, but because of the immense respect for him, he can wield decisive influence. He has intervened in several disputes in the past; one of the most enduring images of his reign is when he ended street violence in 1992 with a few words to the two main rivals, both of them kneeling at his feet. Samak has already been to see the king since this crisis began, but the conversation between them has not been disclosed.

Judiciary could launch a probe against Samak brand of inciting violence. Samak has been linked to a decision to crack down harshly on a group of left-wing student demonstrators in 1976, and analysts initially feared he might do the same thing again. But he knew that he would lose support and credibility if he ordered the military to crack down on the protesters. And even if he did, there is little chance they would follow orders. Soldiers in Bangkok have already refused to exercise the extra powers Samak gave them when he imposed a state of emergency.

Who Next?

Thailand's ruling party agreed to meet on Sept 15 to pick a nominee to be the next prime minister after Samak Sundaravej's bid to return was snuffed out Sompong Amornviwat, deputy leader of the People Power Party (PPP) and apparent favorite for the post, confirmed the meeting Monday will choose one candidate, and hope that name is acceptable to its coalition partners. The others are co-deputy leader Somchai Wongsawat and party secretary-general Surapong Suebwonglee. But Sompong rejected the notion that he was the frontrunner after local media reports that coalition parties favored him.

However, Chamlong Srimuang, one of the five leaders of head protest group the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), said its action would not end with a new prime minister. Besides demanding the ouster of the ruling party, PAD is pushing a broader agenda to scale back Thailand's democracy by reducing the influence of poor, rural voters, who gave Thaksin steadfast support for providing universal health care and low-interest loans.

An Observation

The government has been paralyzed since anti-government street protesters stepped up their campaign in late August. Parliament is to vote for a new prime minister on Sept 17. But there was no sign the opposition PAD were stopping with Samak's departure and protest leaders have said no members of the ruling PPP would be acceptable to them as prime minister.

Thousands of protesters in Bangkok have indefinitely besieged Government House and the newly emerging scenario with the exit of Samak would make a shift in the opposition strategy. So far no clear front-runner has emerged and the protesters say they will not accept another leader perceived as close to Thaksin. PAD is wary about the rural support for him.

The move to elect a new leader of PPP to lead the government might pave the way for an end to Thailand's political crisis. But there is no guarantee for that since the opposition wants the ruling regime to quit government. As such, there is no obvious way out of this impasse, and emerging scenario is a clear recipe for lasting peace. Thailand is badly polarized into two sides - those who ardently support Thaksin and his allies, and those who detest them and refuse to countenance the idea of them in power. Until a final compromise is reached, the rift in Thai society is likely to continue even after a new PPP government with a new premier takes office.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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