Forecasts of international political events
Thai elections on Feb 2
Will Thailand hold elections on February 2?
Events have overtaken this forecast. More accurately, I’m too slow. When I started researching the question, most commentary seemed to suggest that elections wouldn’t take place. It quickly became obvious to me that they would, for the simple reason that Yingluck Shinawatra would gain nothing from delaying them. However, I don’t know a lot about Thailand, so I continued looking for information on things that would cause her to delay the elections. Between that and the various other things in life that have to be taken care of, I’m finally posting and it’s the day before the elections. Actually, in Thailand, it is the day of the elections. So this isn’t much of a forecast. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to post the information I’m working with and my analysis and see what response I get. The contents of my Thai election file follow.
A bit of background: The north of Thailand is poor and contains a third of the country’s voters. They’ve been ignored by Thailand’s political elite since the country started electing democratic governments in the 1930s. A rich business man named Thaksin Shinawatra formed a political party that courted northern votes and won every general election since 2001. Thaksin left Thailand to avoid prosecution for corruption and his party is currently lead by his sister Yingluck, who is now Prime Minister. Her government is opposed by the Democratic party, which has not won a general election in twenty years. The government introduced a bill into Parliament to allow Thaksin Shinawatra back into the country. A few members of the Democratic party organized the current protests in response. These protests forced Yingluck to dissolve Parliament and call new elections on 2 Feb. The protesters and the Democratic party are opposed to holding elections because they will lose. Instead, they want an appointed “peoples’ council” to rewrite the constitution. In addition, they want to ban the entire Shinawatra family from politics.
1) Yingluck Shinawatra
* Prime Minister.
* Member of Pheu Thai political party.
* Sister of Thaksin Shinawatra (founder of Pheu Tai political party).
* Allied with the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD, aka the red shirts).
For purposes of forecasting, Thaksin, the PT party, the current government, and the UDD can be represented by the person of Yingluck. Without buying into the accusation that she is Thaksin’s puppet, it’s clear that they communicate extensively and she is the public face of decisions that they make together. Even though Thaksin is in exile, the PT party is his creation and he’s the actual party head, even if he isn’t listed in the official hierarchy. As the current Prime Minister, Yingluck is very influential in the party. The nominal head of the party is probably a distant third behind the Shinawatras in terms of power.
The UDD opposed the PT bill to grant amnesty to Thaksin because the PT tried to sweeten it by also offering amnesty to the opposition leaders being investigated for the murder of UDD protesters in previous protests. Clearly the UDD maintains some independence from the Shinawatras. It is less willing than Yingluck to compromise in order to bring Thaksin back from exile. But as far as the election is concerned, the UDD is backing Yingluck in both goals and tactics.
2) Suthep Thaugsuban
* Leader of PDRC (protesters)
* Member of Democratic party
* Previous Deputy Prime Minister in an unelected Democratic government.
The government has indicted Suthep for the murder of red shirt protesters, due to his decisions as a member of the government during previous UDD protests. He has also been indicted for what is variously translated into English as rebellion, insurrection, sedition, and treason. That’s a capital crime, but he’s unlikely to hang. The Thais don’t execute criminals very often, and there’s a long tradition of pardoning royalist coup plotters. The police obviously know where to find him and haven’t made any move to arrest him.
Suthep is the leader of the PDRC, the group organizing the protests. As far as the elections go, he also represents the opposition Democratic party, and the political establishment. (I’m not going to use the word “elite” because the opposition is more varied than that.) The political establishment includes the judiciary and the government bureaucracy, along with the Election Commission. Military officers tend to be royalist, so there’s probably a lot of support for Suthep in the officer corps, even if the military is publicly refusing to take sides. Suthep’s leadership is somewhat nebulous. All of these groups agree on the goal of canceling elections and their distaste for the Shinawatras, but they don’t necessarily agree on tactics. Suthep is the current leader of this block by virtue of his leadership of active protests and his visibility. Unlike Yingluck, he’s not irreplaceable. If the various parts of the establishment decide for a change in tactics, another leader will be pushed to the front. For many Yingluck opponents, support for Suthep is less a matter of following his leadership than it is a matter of allowing him to carry on as long as they see some advantage. For others, the illness of the king and the resulting inability of the political establishment to adjust to political change makes Suthep’s intransigence the only available option.
The PDRC protests look good on TV, and it’s been estimated that a fifth of the Bangkok population is involved. Participation comes from all classes. However, for most, participation involves stopping by the protests after work and blowing whistles.
Nonetheless, Suthep is currently the public face of dissatisfaction with PT government. He’s disrupted candidate registration and advance voting, and will disrupt voting on voting day. Apparently, this will be enough to take advantage of provisions in the Thai constitution requiring a quorum in the lower house of Parliament and deprive Yingluck of the chance to quickly form a new government.
3) Bhumibol Adulyadej
* King of Thailand.
* Appoints top military leaders and most top bureaucrats.
* Appoints members of the Election Commission.
The king is old, sick, and possibly dying. Thailand’s laws make impossible for Thais to talk about this publicly, so no one knows how sick he is. Four years ago, an article in the Economist quoted Thai fund managers concerned about “a change that cannot be mentioned.” Four years later, the change still cannot be mentioned, and it’s still expected at any time. However, while the king is 86, his closest adviser is 93, and another long time source of support, the head of the Thai Buddhist clergy, recently died at 100. So the king’s incapacity, and the problems that go with it, could drag on for many more years.
The king’s power to make appointments puts him at the center of a system of patronage that extends into the army and the bureaucracy and shares power with the elected government. His illness leaves this system without clear direction. The crown prince, who may become king at any time, was a close friend of Thaksin. He may have renewed that friendship recently. Fear of a pro-Thaksin king is at least part of the reason that the political establishment is willing to overthrow a government in order to eliminate the Shinawatras from politics. Without guidance from the king, the system can’t adapt to change. Suthep’s intransigence seems like a solution to the problem of the sudden arrival of a new political power that threatens to overwhelm the established network centered around the king.
* Carried out 18 coups (not all successful) since the 1930s.
* 10 of those coups occurred during the reign of the current king.
Under Bhumibol’s reign, threats to the political establishment were handled with military coups. The army would stage a coup, the generals would go visit the king and receive a pardon, the army would eventually yield to a civilian government that was more compliant, and cycle would repeat at the next threat of unacceptable change.
That no longer works. The immediate threat to the royal system is Yingluck and the various people she represents. If the army stages a coup and the king finally dies, the new king may be pro-Thaksin and the coup leaders may have the rug pulled out from under them. Furthermore, the army is not as united as it once was. The old class system that bound the officer corps together is breaking down. In addition, there’s the problem of the “watermelons”; green (army uniform) on the outside, but red (pro-Thaksin) on the inside. The top leadership is royalist and pro-Suthep, but there’s enough Thaksin support that no one can be sure that the army would remain unified during a coup. During the last coup, the UDD was getting advance warning from within the army of military operations. This time, there’s a chance that an attempted coup would see some soldiers actively supporting the government.
5) Election Commission
* Administrator of Thailand’s elections.
* Arbiter of Thailand’s election laws.
The election commissioners are all appointed by the king, acting on the advice of the Senate. 73 members of the Senate (out of 150) are selected by the Senators Selection Committee. The Senators Selection Committee consists of the chairman of the Election Commission and various members of the judiciary, all appointed by the king. So the king appoints the election commissioners with the advice of people selected by the king’s appointees. The individual commissioners seem to be competent and seem to want to do their jobs well, but in a conflict that pits Yingluck’s government against a largely royalist political establishment, of which the Election Commission is clearly part, the commissioners cannot be considered entirely impartial.
Nominally, the issue is whether to hold elections on 2 Feb. In order of their support for elections:
Yingluck > Election Commission > Bhumibol = Army > Suthep
Yingluck is strongly in favor of holding elections. Everyone else is opposed to one degree or another. The Election Commission doesn’t want to hold elections, but wants to carry out its duties competently. The king is probably aligned with the army. The army brass privately supports Suthep. Suthep is strongly opposed to holding elections.
Bhumibol> Army > Yingluck > Suthep > Election Commission
The king appoints the army’s leaders and the country’s top bureaucrats, giving him a tremendous amount of influence with unelected power figures. The army is 250,000 people with guns and a history of coups. They can stop the election and impose a government of their choice. As Prime Minister, Yingluck is at the top of the elected government. Suthep leads the protesters, but his influence is mostly limited to his power to create disorder. His goal is not to force Yingluck to negotiate, but to prompt the army to overthrow the government in order to restore order. The Election Commission is required by law to comply with the prime minister. The most it can do, in opposition to Yingluck, is issue public warnings about the risk of violence if an election occurs.
Importance of the issue to the actor
Yingluck = Suthep > Election Commission > Army > Bhumibol
Suthep is trying to overthrow a democratically elected government by non-democratic means. If he fails, the system he represents will lose a lot of influence and he may be tried for treason. Yingluck is fighting for her political life, her brother’s return from exile, her family’s survival in politics, her party’s continued existence, and the interests of her political base. The Election Commission’s job is holding elections. Unlike Yingluck, Suthep, and the Election Commission, the army can sit this out. The king is sick enough that his illness may prevent him from following events as closely as the other actors.
Election Commission > Bhumibol = Army > Yingluck > Suthep
The Election Commission is opposed to holding elections on 2 Feb, but is under pressure from the government to hold them anyway, and can only postpone them in cooperation with the government. Publicly, it’s been going back and forth. The king is too sick to get actively involved, and the army is more divided that it was in the past. Both will accept an outcome they consider less than ideal for the sake of maintaining order. Yingluck has shown some flexibility in trying to deal with Suthep and the protests. Suthep has shown no flexibility at all.
The military will not stage a coup. In the event of an anti-Thaksin coup followed by the death of the king, the leaders could end up having to answer to a new pro-Thaksin king. In addition, the military is divided over the political situation. Some units of the army may not obey the commands of coup leaders. Thaksin supporters in the army will be feeding information to Yingluck’s government and the UDD. And the UDD will resist a coup. Even without violence, they can make post-coup government very difficult for the army. The military’s top brass may lose their jobs under a new king, but not under a new government. The military’s instutional interests aren’t threatened by Yingluck’s government. Given the riskiness of a coup and the lack of immediate negative consequences from a Yingluck victory, the military will stay neutral, aside perhaps from assisting the police in maintaining order.
Bhumibol is too ill to get involved.
The Election Commission
The commission is legally obligated to carry out elections. A decision by the Constitutional Court allows the commission to postpone an election in cooperation with the prime minister, but not by acting on its own. The royally appointed commissioners are seen by Yingluck’s government as part of the royalist opposition, and its efforts to postpone the election part of the oppositions attempts to remove Yingluck from power. Therefore they can’t persuade Yingluck to agree to a postponement, and they will be compelled to hold elections on 2 Feb.
Attendance at the protests has been declining. It’s becoming clearer to the old establishment that Suthep’s protests aren’t going to eliminate the Shinawatras and his refusal to negotiate eliminates the possibility of gaining anything else from the situation. His power peaked in the first half of January. His followers will be able to partially disrupt the elections and there will be some violence. His success in preventing some districts from electing parliament members means that by elections will have to be held in the first couple of months after the 2 Feb elections. His declining influence means that enough of these will be successful that Yingluck will eventually be able to form a government, with the establishment Suthep represents considerably weakened. In the absence of a capable king, there’s no obvious candidate for an opposition leader with the authority to negotiate a new political regime with the Shinawatras. It will take time for the establishment to replace the king’s patronage with new institutions and find new ways of selecting leaders.
So far, after the miscalculation of the amnesty bill, Yingluck has done everything right. I’m predicting that she’ll be able to keep that up and eventually form a new government. She and Thaksin realized that in the absence of an effective king, the current laws give the advantage to whoever has elected power. She loses that advantage if she resigns and governing power passes back to the king’s appointees. The Shinawatras will be eliminated from politics if yet another group of royal appointees creates yet another constitution. She will do everything possible to stay in office, and the odds are that she will succeed.
These that the things that I’m aware of that could cause my predictions to be wrong.
If there’s enough violence, the army could feel compelled to step in and restore order. There’s been some talk of moving the capital either to the north or to the south, or creating separate governments. So far, no one has taken the suggestions seriously. But if some one did get serious and the army felt that Thailand’s existence as a unified country were threatened, it would act. If the king died in the next few weeks and the new king was less pro-Thaksin than feared, the army might feel less constrained about carrying out a coup.
Since no one is allowed to talk about the king’s illness, no one knows for sure how serious it is or what form it takes. It’s possible that the king could have a temporary recovery and start negotiations with Yingluck, or at least authorize others to negotiate with her.
Suthep’s followers could create enough violence to draw in the army. They could remain numerous and active enough to disrupt enough elections to prevent a parliamentary quorum, preventing Yingluck from forming a new government.
Yingluck could miscalculate at any time and use the police in ways that incite the protesters to more violence, or that re-energize them and cause them to return to the streets in numbers that match early January. The rice-subsidy case currently being handled by the courts could result in her being banned from politics. The government hasn’t been able to borrow the money it needs to pay rice farmers for rice pledged under the rice sudsidy scheme, and farmers have been blocking highways in protest. If this continues, it could cost her support in the north and undermine her ability to maintain her caretaker government until there’s enough members elected to the parliament to form a new government.