Sunday, April 19, 2009

Far Eastern Economic Review: Thailand Needs New Elections


Over the past few years, Thailand's political elites have waged a battle on the streets of the capital using mobs to throw democratically elected governments out of power. Now it is the turn of the supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed former prime minister, to wreak their revenge. Meanwhile the economic losses mount, and one of Asia's oldest democracies looks more and more fragile. So where did Thailand go wrong?

For decades, power-brokers in the military, parliament and boardroom used the government to enrich themselves. The populist Mr. Thaksin threatened their interests by obtaining a strong democratic mandate to start expensive government programs to benefit the rural poor, and also to open the door wider to the forces of globalization and competition. Last weekend's riots by the "Red Shirts," Mr. Thaksin's supporters, mimicked the tactics used by the anti-Thaksin forces, the "Yellow Shirts," in late 2008. That group also surrounded government buildings and blockaded Bangkok's airports for days, bringing the country to a virtual standstill.


Full rehabilitation of Mr. Thaksin most probably would require a pardon, whether by the king or the parliament. Yet there are other steps that could be taken -- and that don't necessarily need to factor in Mr. Thaksin directly -- that also might pave the way for meaningful reconciliation.

The government could grant amnesty to the 111 members of Mr. Thaksin's now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party, allowing them to re-enter the political arena. This group, including Mr. Thaksin, was banned from politics for five years by a junta-appointed panel for breaking electoral laws prior to the parliamentary elections of April 2, 2006.


The current Constitution of 2007 could be amended to reflect better the so-called People's Constitution of 1997. Many consider this Constitution the most democratic in the country's history, not least because it was drawn up with extensive public consultation, and for the first time called for direct elections to both the upper and lower houses of parliament. In any case, greater power needs to be returned to the elected members of parliament and removed from nonelected institutions and representatives of the state. Some of the reforms of the 1997 Constitution were rolled back in 2007.

More importantly, there should be fresh elections as soon as possible. By hanging on to power until the bitter end, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his coalition government risk doing more harm than good. The prime minister should recognize that the current situation is untenable.

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