Monday, January 24, 2011

Isolated Abhisit may still survive dual attacks

January 25, 2011
The Nation

Thailand is enjoying a break from political upheaval, but with reds and yellows both calling for the PM's head, how long will this fragile peace last?

The Democrat Party is looking strangely isolated. For the first time in its term, the largest party in the coalition government is facing back-to-back protests by the red and yellow shirts. To add to that, the ongoing tussle over charter amendment proposals with the coalition allies means that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's party cannot boast a government in "harmony" going into an imminent censure debate with the opposition Pheu Thai Party.

In the old days, all these factors taken together would have constituted a big "crisis", but this is new politics and this is a prime minister who has survived political bloodbaths and potentially crippling court cases in the same year. However, last Sunday's rally by the red shirts, today's protest by the yellow shirts, the charter amendment impasse and the looming no-confidence showdown with the opposition are not a walk in the park. For one thing, while enemies and detractors of the government may share some common goals, they are still not advocating the same causes. Whether this will benefit Abhisit or make things worse for him remains to be seen.

Both the yellow and red shirts now want the prime minister to go. The red shirts are citing the casualties of last year's political bloodshed as the key reason. The yellow shirts have been upset by the government's Cambodia-related policies, which ironically have more to do with some messy issues left by pro-red governments.

Optimists see the violent street politics of last year evolving into something more manageable democratically. The red shirts are unlikely to go back to the extremism that could give the prime minister an excuse to reverse his "early election" promise.

The yellow shirts - who have denounced the red-shirts' tactics for causing disruption to peace and order - are unlikely to swallow their words, at least not too soon.

The upcoming parliamentary censure debate is expected to be aimed at the entire Cabinet. That will be a tactical approach because ministers and deputy ministers who are MPs will not be allowed to "vote for themselves". With the number of coalition members and opposition MPs eligible to vote in the censure not so different, political undercurrents can transform into big waves at the time of voting.

But before the censure can happen, the prime minister and the Democrat Party must first sort out problems with their coalition allies regarding the proposed charter amendment. Serious conflicts seemingly remain unsolved, but observers believe that when push comes to shove, the coalition partners will prefer to toe the Democrats' line than gang up with Pheu Thai and have their way.

Therefore, isolated as he seems, Abhisit is not yet in a back-to-the-wall situation. Much will depend on how strong the yellow shirts' momentum will carry forward. The movement has been weakened by internal strife and the disillusionment of peripheral sympathisers.

As for the red shirts, their street campaigns have looked more like election war drumming than an "Abhisit-out-at-all-costs" agenda.

Is Thai politics in the process of healing itself? That may be wishful thinking too soon. If this is just a break before a new round of turmoil, we can only hope there won't be repetition of the violence of last year. The yellow shirts, led by a former Thaksin Shinawatra ally who turned against him, are representing the uncertainty and unpredictability of politics. Can they combine with the pro-Thaksin red shirts to overthrow Abhisit? All we know is that Sondhi Limthongkul was once Thaksin's most vocal and influential cheerleader, and Kasit Piromya was not so long ago the yellow shirts' darling.

As Thailand enjoys a peaceful break politically, it's up to all the key players to keep things this way. In fact, Abhisit, the Thai military, and the red-shirt and yellow-shirt leaders all owe the neutral Thai public a peaceful return to real democracy. They have been playing reasonably fair so far, and long may that continue.


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