BANGKOK – Rarely does a supposedly democratic country find itself in such a mess. Consider the following: at the time of writing Thailand has only a “caretaker” government, the real thing having resigned last week to allow for an election; the official opposition party has resigned from parliament en masse, and is yet to decide whether to take any further part in the democratic process.
The leader of the opposition, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has just been indicted on a murder charge for ordering a crackdown on street protesters in 2010; his former colleague and deputy prime minister, Suthep Thaugsuban, had been charged with various other offences such as rebellion, arising from the fact that he is currently leading a revolution in the streets to try to topple the aforesaid (elected) government that has already resigned; and a former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, living in self-imposed exile, faces a two-year jail term on charges of abuse of power and corruption, should he return to Thailand. Oh, and Mr Suthep faces murder charges too, the same as Mr Abhisit’s, from 2010.
Bad as it is, this litany of dysfunction is no longer very new. It all arises from the sometimes deadly conflict waged between Mr Thaksin and his opponents, since a time before he was deposed by military coup in 2006. It is depressing to see Thailand’s politicians become so obsessed by the supposed failings and virtues of just one man; only Italy’s fixation on Silvio Berlusconi really bears comparison. But, miraculously it seemed, at least Thailand’s economy has come through it all pretty well. Many other countries’ would have collapsed under the deadweight of political squabbling and myopia.
But for how long can this fortunate state of affairs continue? So far as investors and businessmen crave certainty and predictability, the only thing certain in Thailand these days is unpredictability. The prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, Mr Thaksin’s sister, now seems to have only the shakiest grasp on power. It’s a fair bet the election she has called for February 2014 will never even happen. She has assembled forums to discuss vague concepts of “reform”, to appease Mr Suthep. At the same time Mr Suthep pushes for a completely new government to be run by an unelected “people’s council”. That is also known as a coup.
For Thai businessmen, this is coming at the worst possible time: the beginning of the tourist season. Tourism is vital to the national economy. Last year the country pulled in about 22m visitors. Overall, the tourism-and-travel sector contributed about $28 billion to Thailand’s economy, which would make it worth 7.3% of GDP for 2012, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Including tourism-and-travel’s indirect impact on the economy would make the sector’s value rise to $64.3 billion, or 16.7% of GDP. The sector employs about 2m people directly, and far more indirectly.
There are already signs that the ongoing street protests and occasional political violence and thuggery are putting plenty of people off coming to the country—hardly surprising, as dozens of foreign governments have issued warnings against travelling to Thailand. The political situation is estimated to have reduced the number of inbound tourists in the month to mid-December by 300,000 people, or 8% of the number expected, says Yutthachai Soonthronrattanavate, president of the Association of Domestic Travel.
That is worrying, as is the thought that the current turmoil could drag on to the election in February, or even longer if that proves inconclusive—in other words, throughout the high season. Mindful of the value of the tourism industry, Mr Suthep’s mobs have promised not to occupy and close down Bangkok’s international airport, as their predecessors, the “yellow shirts”, did in 2008. That is now well understood to have hurt the tourist industry, and the wider economy.
That will not be enough to offset the difference however, as even more tourists are now attuned to Thailand’s problems and willing go elsewhere on their merry ways. Bangkok also makes a bundle as a destination for conferences and conventions, but now organisers are actively considering going to other South-East Asian venues rather than endure the road closures and traffic chaos that accompany endless rounds of street demos (to say nothing of the threat of violence).
The government’s own grandiose spending plans have been thrown up in the air too. A key part of the government’s economic strategy had been to boost domestic demand by Keynesian-style spending, the political failure to have a functioning government has effectively undermined that whole strategy. Plans to borrow as much as $68 billion for new railways and roads are to be put on the back-burner as parliamentary and constitutional approval for these bills is delayed indefinitely. Many businesses, such as construction companies, stood to benefit from those expenditures, and now their plans have been derailed as badly as any holidaymaker’s. Thailand’s growth rate for 2013 is likely to weigh in at 3% or so, relatively modest for the region. The government’s hope to achieve a rate of 7% for 2014 now looks wildly optimistic.
For all these reasons it’s not surprising that business organisations and their representatives have been actively calling for political reconciliation. Some have even been putting themselves forward as possible mediators. Anything to let the politicians know that gravity cannot be defied forever. Sooner or later, Thailand’s awful politics is bound to catch up with its economy