BANGKOK – Thailand’s political mess has reached the point where it may have to be the king, not parliament, who appoints the next prime minister. Since Thailand’s revolution of 1932, nine prime ministers have been removed from office by coup d’état and two others by court order.
Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a bloodless coup by the army, in 2006—one of those unlucky nine. His younger sister, the current caretaker prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, now looks like she might be poised to become the third prime minister to be ousted by a court order. If that were to happen, it may well fall to the elderly king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, to pick her replacement.
The anti-government protesters, who have been boxed into a public park since March, are again roaming the streets of Bangkok. Their leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, has announced a final campaign to push Ms Yingluck from office. His timing coincides with the run-up to Songkran, the annual water festival, which begins on April 13th this year; ritually, it is a time of cleansing and renewal. Mr Suthep’s sympathisers in the army, the civil service, the judiciary and the royal palace have meantime moved to depose Ms Yingluck by legal means
On April 2nd the constitutional court agreed to hear a case against Ms Yingluck regarding her removal of a national security adviser, Thawil Pliensree, in 2011. The case is currently looking like the most plausible route by which the government could be toppled. The charge against her is essentially nepotism. The group of senators who filed the case argues that Ms Yingluck’s decision to transfer Mr Thawil violated the constitution. They are arguing that that Mr Thawil was removed in order to make way for a shuffle of key positions in the security apparatus, a series of changes that made a close family relation of Mr Thaksin into the national police chief.
There has been another significant case against Ms Yingluck lodged with the national anti-corruption commission. There she stands charged with dereliction of duty in pursuit of the government’s signature policy, a disastrous rice-pledging scheme. But the constitutional court’s case is the more threatening: it could bring down the entire government, and the judgment will not require the approval of the senate.
The constitutional court was established only after the 2006 coup against Mr Thaksin. And were it to rule against Ms Yingluck, it would not be the first time it had ruled against one of his proxies. As if to underscore that precedent, the court’s spokesman has noted that the case against Ms Yingluck resembles an action undertaken against the late Samak Sundaravej, a one-time celebrity chef who came to serve as the prime minister. Mr Samak was forced from power in 2008 on the constitutional technicality that he had continued to play host to his TV cookery programme.
If she were found guilty, then Ms Yingluck’s opponents could invoke Section 7 of the constitution, under which the king can appoint a “neutral” prime minister. A recent poll suggests that 48% of Thais think a neutral prime minister is the best way out of the mess; 23% think the next prime minister should come from another election.
The current government has insisted that it must remain in office till a new government has been sworn in. As they see it, that will require a new election. The constitutional court has already nullified an incomplete February 2nd general election (which was boycotted by the opposition, hence won by Ms Yingluck’s party) and ordered a new poll. But the election commission, a body that specialises in the art of procrastination, has already said that any fresh elections are at least five months away.
What will happen in those five months? There is little chance that the country’s electile dysfunction will heal itself. All things considered, the momentum is now clearly with the anti-government camp. On April 2nd, the constitutional court threw out a petition by a prominent minister which had asked it to recognise that the anti-government protests violate the constitution. A day later, a criminal court withdrew arrest warrants that had been issued against 18 of the protest leaders for their having disobeyed an emergency decree.
One way of looking at the revolution of 1932 is to see that it failed to destroy the privileges of an entrenched elite. That history might seem to offer comfort to the current campaign, which seeks to reassert the elite’s interests against a government of elected upstarts, led by Thaksin Shinawatra and his family; counter-revolutions have a track record of success in Thailand. This time however the protesters—the counter-revolutionaries, as it were—must be wary of a further backlash by the Shinawatras’ own supporters, “the red shirts”. Over the weekend tens of thousands of red shirts gathered in the capital, Bangkok. They had come to make it known that they do not intend to let Mr Suthep and his backers get away with another coup, judicial or otherwise.
The rally was held close to the palace of the crown prince, Vajiralongkorn. He is seen by many as being sympathetic to the red shirts, and the red shirts were there to express their support for him. The traditional elite are thought to dislike him, though they swear by the monarchy, and he is its designated heir. Many people assume that what Mr Suthep is really after is not a “restart” for Thailand, but rather a tweak to its royal succession—with an eye to preserving the old order.
The kingdom is straining not to buckle under the tectonic friction between democracy and the traditional elite. Economic stagnation is likely to aggravate the fight over economic resources. As competition between the two sides becomes more desperate, the risk of a permanent fissure is growing. The generals, whose foremost duty it is to protect the king, might realise that far too much pressure has built up on the judgment of an 86-year-old man in frail health. But they must know that if they were to try quashing the red shirts at this point, the army itself would split.