The Abhisit Vejjajiva government faces its toughest test since the Songkhran Uprising, with the military is considerable disarray and a public dispute between the Democrat Party and its coalition partners over constitutional change.
The New York Times (via Reuters, 27 January 2010) reports that stock prices continue to fall in Bangkok on political jitters.
The Democrat Party’s strong rejection of any engagement in constitutional amendment (despite the prime minister having promoted it for months) has caused speculation about a rift in the Democrat-led six-party coalition. While all party leaders have said the parties were united, clearly there is considerable anger with the Democrats, who are accused of reneging on written and spoken agreements made when the coalition was formed.
PPT thinks that the coalition will stay together as long as there is strong backing for the coalition from the palace and military. On the latter, see more discussion below.
Abhisit has been erratic on constitutional change. After months of promoting some form of amendment, he is now firmly opposed and angry that the Democrats are being pressured on this, and banning a free vote on the matter (Bangkok Post, 27 January 2010 ).
Democrat Party members appear to have been pressured. But not by the coalition as much as by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). On 19 January, PAD leaders stated that they might support some constitutional changes, but they quickly backed away from this. When it looked like the Democrats might just support constitutional amendment, PAD leaders Chamlong Srimuang and Somkiat Pongpaibul jointly addressed a press conference (reported in the Bangkok Post, 23 January 2010) and called on the Democrats to oppose change.
They called for a minority government if the coalition fell apart. Chamlong stated that the prime minister “doesn’t have to dissolve the House. We the people will step in to support the government.” This is an interesting idea. A minority government would, however need more than a PAD rally to maintain power. It would need the army (see below) and palace and judicial connivance. It does fit with Abhisit’s later and quite remarkable claim: “Do not worry about a house dissolution because nobody can threaten me as long as I am the prime minister” (Bangkok Post, 27 January 2010). Maybe Prem has also been instructing him?
Now it is also remarkable that a Democrat Party member of parliament – Somkiat – can speak for PAD. This anomaly has been there for some time, but it is now evident that much of the basic decision-making within the Democrat Party is determined by the yellow-shirted brigade that most publicly includes Somkiat, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and Kalaya Sophonpanich. These PAD supporters have been unhappy with Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Taugsuban’s more pragmatic and “unprincipled” approach to coalition partners.
While most analysts do not think the coalition can break apart at present, mainly because of the threat of an expensive election and a possible loss to the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party, the idea of a minority government remains on the table. A minority government is a high-risk strategy because of the way the Democrat Party coalition was put together and how Abhisit became premier. A vote in parliament could easily see Puea Thai become the government. That is a nightmare scenario for the establishment.
It is likely that the anti-Thaksin commentators in the mainstream media will link the minor party support for constitutional amendment to lingering support for Thaksin, and this might be a catalyst for further dissension as the Democrats face a no-confidence motion in parliament. As Suthep explained on PBS last night, this could lead to serious loss of face in parliament.
Equally worrying for the Democrats and their backers is the February D-Day of the Thaksin assets case decision. A divided coalition and a divided military (see below) will scare many in the establishment. A dissolution and an election is not what the establishment wants – Prem has said he does not want to see the House dissolved. As one academic commentator in the NYT articles says, “There is a lot of uncertainty about what will happen if the government calls fresh polls and Thaksin’s supporters win again. What would happen then?” Expect more noises from the palace.
Much of the Democrat Party leadership strategy making, and that of its powerful backers, depends on the military as the armed protector of the establishment’s government. Look at how much budget support the military has been getting in recent days as the government expands its deficit even further for 2011. However, the military is looking somewhat shaky.
The news broadcasts on television on 27 January included some extraordinary footage of soldiers, parading in front of banners, offering support to army chief General Anupong Paojinda. Expressions of support, songs sung, parades held and mini-press conferences with generals all proclaiming their undying love for their boss. Further demonstrations are planned. Military street politics perhaps?
PPT can’t recall such a display since the time of the Chatichai Choonhavan government when the army wanted to get back its control of foreign policy from the Ban Pitsanulok policy advisers. That’s 20 years ago.
Wassana Nanuam (Bangkok Post, 28 January 2010) comments on this. She says this can be interpreted as “a warning to the junior coalition parties, which are locked in conflict with the Democrat Party over amendments to the constitution.” It was also a show of support for Anupong as he faces down Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol (Seh Daeng), who is popping up in various places and continuing to embarrass the top brass by demonstrating that the military is indeed split.
In some incredible television, Khattiya and Anupong both attended events for the 50th anniversary of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School. As Anupong sat grim-faced, Seh Daeng received red roses from military supporters.
Wassana asserts that the military demonstrations are supported by deputy army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha and 1st Army chief Kanit Sapitak. “Gen Prayuth is a strong contender to be promoted to the top army post. Gen Anupong has also reshuffled many key commanders by replacing those suspected of supporting Thaksin with those in whom he has put his trust since he became army commander.”
Reuters (27 January 2010) states that the “festering ideological differences [in the military] show signs of broadening in one of the most charged climates in decades.” It reports that many analysts now acknowledge that “[l]arge numbers of soldiers of lower ranks and some senior officers … are sympathisers of Thailand’s rural, grassroots anti-government, red-shirted protest movement.” The top brass is mainly on the other side, “allied with royalists, business elites and the urban middle classes, who wear yellow at protests and largely support the present government.”
The military includes such a bunch of dunces that a coup cannot be ruled out if the leadership sees it as a way to “clean up a mess.” However, some also realize that the last coup failed to sort out the problems created by the palace-military coup in 2006. Wonder what the Privy Council will have discussed in their weekly meeting?