Here is the text of an opinion piece I wrote for today’s Canberra Times:
Let the electorate judge the Thai Government’s fate
15/07/2008 11:32:00 AM
Only six months after the last election, Thai politics has, once again, descended into chaos. The Government is under attack in the courts, in Parliament and in the media. A determined and vocal group of protesters, who call themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy, is waging a high-profile campaign against the Government on the streets of Bangkok. A few weeks ago they broke through police barricades and surrounded Government House.
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej must dread reading the newspaper each morning. Each day seems to bring a new crisis or an escalation in one of his many existing problems.
On Tuesday last week, his deputy party leader and former speaker was found guilty of vote buying. On Wednesday, the health minister was disqualified for not declaring his wife’s assets, and on Thursday the foreign minister resigned after a nationalist backlash against the Government’s decision to support a Cambodian bid for World Heritage listing for an ancient Hindu temple. The Preah Vihear temple is located on a disputed section of the Thai-Cambodian border. Even though the International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the temple belonged to Cambodia, opposition forces have accused the foreign minster of being a traitor who betrayed Thai national sovereignty by supporting the Cambodian submission to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
The constitutional court even weighed into the fray by ruling the Government should not have endorsed the Cambodian World Heritage bid without taking the matter to Parliament. It may seem like a rather arcane legal argument, but Preah Vihear is a lightening rod for ultra-nationalist sentiment and it poses a real risk to Samak’s Government. Nevertheless, the Government may be more resilient than recent chaotic events suggest.
The bottom line is Samak holds a commanding majority in the House of Representatives. His People Power Party, in which deposed prime-minister Thaksin Shinawatra has considerable influence, fell just short of an absolute majority in the election of December 2007. In the weeks following the election Samak was able to stitch together a coalition with all the minor parties, leaving the Democrat Party alone on the opposition benches.
Samak’s parliamentary numbers meant he could easily see off the no-confidence motion staged by the reinvigorated Democrats in late June. There may be nervousness among coalition partners, but Samak’s commanding majority means he could live with some minor party defections. Samak has also been able to cultivate a positive relationship with the military. You should never say never when it comes to coups in Thailand, but the signals from the top military brass suggest that they will not be resorting to a coup.
With the military indicating it will stay out of the fight, Prime Minister Samak holds another important card up his sleeve. He could dissolve parliament and call an election. Talk of an election is enough to send opposition forces in Thailand running for cover.
The opposition Democrats know that Samak’s People Power Party would perform much better in an election than they would. There is still strong voter affection for Thaksin and for his policies and the electorate would, in all probability, express this support by voting for People Power.
A new election would be the fourth election loss for the Democrats since 2001. They only avoided a loss in the 2006 election by boycotting it. Samak knows his party holds the electoral upper hand and he will use the threat of a new election to shore up the Government’s position. The protesters on the street also know that Samak has a strong electoral advantage. Their protests have attracted some support but it is hardly the mass mobilisation the People’s Alliance for Democracy hoped for. The protest leadership is now proposing a ”new politics” for Thailand.
The central plank in their ”reform” agenda is to have 70 per cent of parliamentarians appointed rather than elected. That is the only way they can think of can get rid of Samak and the enduring influence of Thaksin in Thai politics.
If you can’t win an election then why not change the rules? The People’s Alliance for Democracy don’t trust the electorate. They think that most voters, especially rural voters, are naive and gullible. They don’t want these voters to be able to determine who forms a government. Samak is a rough and tumble politician with a highly-dubious political history. His government has been ham-fisted, arrogant and ill-informed on a number of issues. Street protests, no-confidence motions, court cases and media condemnation are all legitimate in a democratic system. Attacks on the Government have produced some high profile casualties and caused some significant backdowns. But Samak’s Government is less than six months old. Opposition forces calling for Samak to hand over power (presumably to the Democrats) are overplaying their hand.
The December 2007 election result was clear and the Government should be allowed to govern. Thai politics is very messy but some of democracy’s main checks and balances seem to be working.
Once the Government has served its term, the electorate can judge.