Stumbling in chains towards a poll?

9 August 2010

Do you laugh or cry? Kanit na Nakhon, in his new role heading a reconciliation commission, asks the government to stop chaining up the red-shirt detainees like oarsmen on a slave ship. After all, they gave themselves up. The head of the department of corrections responds that "developed countries" such as Singapore follow the same practice, and the only problem is that the Thai prison outfit has short sleeves and short pants so the chains show.

Somehow this incident sums up the current situation. After the Songkran troubles last year, the talk of reconciliation lasted only a few weeks. The pattern is being repeated. The double standards are getting more blatant. The judiciary activates the case against the yellow-shirt leaders over the airport evacuation, but then it disappears again, and a few days later yet more charges are loaded on the red-shirt detainees. One case for the dissolution of the Democrat Party suddenly dissolves into thin air. The yellow-shirts defy the Emergency Decree to hold protests over Khao Preah Vihear, and the government spokesman says that's alright. Meanwhile even school children suffer harassment if they dare to support the red-shirt cause.

What are the prospects for an election in this atmosphere? Were the Democrats to lose their grip on power, they and their allies (both in the Parliament and elsewhere) could only expect revenge - or to put it another way, to be treated to the same double standards in reverse. That must reduce their enthusiasm for holding an election that the Democrats would be hard put to win.

Some are already saying that Thailand's days of electoral democracy are over. After all, the results of the last three elections have been set aside by court rulings, a coup, and parliamentary manoeuvring. What is the point of holding another if its outcome could only be the same? Every time Abhisit talks about prospects for an election, he adds a condition that the country must be at peace to allow unrestricted campaigning. But since the government's own aggression is making such a peace more and more remote, this condition is Catch 22.

In this scenario, the current coalition hangs on to the bitter end of its term in December 2011, and then some accident or unusual event provides an excuse for the coalition to keep going. Some in the business community have started talking enthusiastically about a "Chinese model" to justify Thailand's transition to its post-democratic era. China is doing very well with a free-market economy and an authoritarian state.

But there's a strong counter-argument that this is all fantasy. There is plenty of evidence that the overwhelming majority of the Thai people want to retain electoral democracy. The Chinese model works in China because the state is seen as a moral guardian that commands people's trust, but nobody imagines the same is true here. To override the constitutional requirement for an election by the end of next year, the Democrats and their backers would have to defy the weight of public opinion. They would also have to suffer contempt and ridicule in the eyes of the world. Many of the middle-class supporters of the Democrats want the country to be seen as modern, sophisticated, and in line with international practice.

Just delaying the poll for a short time may make matters worse for the Democrats. Six months later the 100 MPs banned on 30 May 2007 will come back on stream.

But if there has to be an election, it somehow has to be won. But how? Or, to put it another way, how much public money will be needed to ensure the "right" result?

Here the role of the military is critical. Since 2006, the military has considered preventing a pro-Thaksin government as a matter of national security. That justifies the use of public money and personnel. Before the last poll in 2007, military figures helped to set up political parties, run disinformation campaigns against the opposition using military-owned media, put pressure on local officials, conduct opinion polls on likely voting behaviour, and issue orders to military personnel on how to vote. The new army head-designate has promised to remove the army from politics, but that remains to be seen.

The next most important resource for the Democrats is Newin Chidchob and the Bhumjai Thai Party (BJT). The Democrats run some risks if they are involved directly in the market for loose politicians. They also would have little success in most of the northeast and upper north where defecting to the Democrats would be political suicide. That's why the Democrats need the BJT. Almost as soon as the Bangkok Six by-election result was in, the MP market sprang to life. Supporters of both red and yellow have tried to spin the result of the election as positive for their side, but in truth it showed there was no emotional slide against the government after the May events. Immediately the result was known, Newin was able to pry a handful of MPs loose from Pheu Thai. The Democrats allotted BJT several juicy portfolios in the coalition to enable them to build their patronage and their power. The Communications Ministry is probably the single most lucrative portfolio. The infamous bus project looks set to go through. Command of the Interior Ministry has let them purge the ranks of governors and other local officials, and place their own men in key areas. Newin can lure away MPs with both the cash and the promise of local influence that can deliver electoral success at the upcoming poll. Maybe.

In addition, the Democrats and their allies will work hard at destabilising their opponents. Popular new leaders will somehow be kept under lock and key. Restrictions on media will remain. The freezing of assets of alleged financiers, which seems to have been a complete boondoggle, may be a model for future projects of intimidation. The Election Commission might come in handy.