Deepening crisis

With the Opposition digging in its heels in and refusing to heed the government’s call for dialogue, a bloody showdown seems to be on the cards in Thailand. The country has been roiled in unrest since November, when protests erupted against the passage of a controversial amnesty bill by the lower house of Parliament. This bill was proposed by prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party, prompting its critics to claim that it was aimed at allowing former prime minister and Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, to return to politics without serving time in jail.

Although the bill was defeated in the Senate, the protests have continued. Yingluck has sought to break the deadlock by calling for fresh elections on February 2 and offering dialogue. But the opposition has rejected her conciliatory gestures. It is calling for a boycott of the poll. Yingluck must draw lessons from Bangladesh, where an opposition-boycotted election has undermined the legitimacy of the new government. If the stalemate persists, she should consider postponing the election. Thailand’s Election Commission too is in favour of postponing the election.

Demonstrations are an important part of a vibrant democracy. In Thailand, however, it is the dominant way of doing politics. The protesters want the government to step down and make way for an unelected ‘people’s council’ to pick the country’s leaders. Support for the opposition is confined to the urban middle class. In rural Thailand, it is the Pheu Thai party that is popular and is expected to win again should elections be held. Is this why the opposition doesn’t want elections?  

With unrest persisting and scope for peaceful resolution of the crisis narrowing, the possibility of a military intervention looms. With every passing day the impasse persists, the Thai military is moving closer to the political arena. It has staged 18 coups in 80 years and is not averse to staging another. That it is not disinclined to stage a coup now became evident last week, when General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who had earlier ruled out military intervention, did not do so explicitly. The “door (to the political arena) is neither open nor closed,” he said, fuelling rumours of an imminent coup. If the military steps in, it could choose to play the role of an arbiter in the current conflict. But worryingly, it could prefer to rule.

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