Welcome to Quagmire Country. Last week Thailand’s acting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted after a Constitutional Court ruling ruled that she has illegally transferred the head of National Security Council. This was followed by an indictment by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) for negligence of duty in the rice-pledging scheme, which could result in her impeachment and banishing from politics for five years. She was replaced by interim Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, a Thaksin confidante and former executive in his various companies.
Embolden by the news, the anti-government protesters led by Suthep Thuagsuban stepped up their rallies again, harassing and coercing TV stations to broadcast their speeches and not the government security official’s announcements. Earlier this week, they moved out of Lumphini Park and moved back to Ratchadamnoen Road where they started their campaign over six months ago.
Meanwhile, the Senate convened initially only to confirm a new executive for the NACC, as dictated by a royal decree – but also decided to elect a new Senate speaker. The vote went to Surachai Liengboonlertchai, an appointed senator and the former deputy speaker – and the preferred choice of the anti-government protesters. But that vote may or may not have overreached what the decree dictated and may be legally challenged, while Surachai awaits royal confirmation.
This highlights the current importance of the Senate – the half-elected, half-appointed upper chamber – in this current political stalemate. For instance, 90 (or three fifths) of the 150-strong Senate are needed in order to impeach former PM Yingluck. Also, as currently the only representative body left in Thailand, calls by the protesters for it to appoint a ‘neutral’ caretaker government are getting louder and has been considered aloud by some senators in informal sessions and secret backdoor meetings, raising more questions and doubt than actual solutions and confidence.
The new Prime Minister Niwatthamrong had to hit the ground running and pushed for the proposed July 20 elections to go ahead. For that he met with the Election Commission (EC) on Thursday, but that was cut short when a mob led by Suthep bursted onto the compound and forced Niwatthamrong to flee – despite a change of location due to security concerns. The EC then swiftly declared that July 20 elections are “unlikely” in the same reluctant manner we saw before the earlier attempt on February 2.
It was yet another symbolic blow for the remaining Cabinet, as Suthep & co. have already occupied a building of the besieged Government House and made it their center of operations. The EC and earlier this week the Senate speaker-elect have welcomed Suthep and his co-leaders openly to discuss the protesters’ solution, giving them the sort of legitimacy Suthep is seeking after months of bullying.
One has to wonder whether or not the EC and the Senate are openly chaperoning Suthep and his demands for an appointed caretaker government, since the protesters claim that there’s a ‘political vacuum’ now after Yingluck’s ouster and PM Niwatthamrong has very limited powers. In fact, the Senate speaker-elect Surachai has threatened to go ahead with the ‘neutral’ PM and stated the importance of not letting “laws impede ability to solve Thai crisis”. The thin veneer of impartiality of many (especially appointed) senators is yet another casualty along a long line of politicized institutions and government agencies that are supposed to be neutral.
With the red shirts rallying outside Bangkok, but staying put for now and yet another deadly attack killing 3 protesters on Wednesday night, the so far gun-shy military issued its sharpest statement yet. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha threatened to “launch a full-scale effort to end the violence, in order to maintain order”, if such violent incidents do not stop.
Thailand is now entering a crucial junction where tensions could exacerbate even more depending on what the Senate will do next. The immediate fate and future of the country is being decided (yet again) by a few behind closed doors whose ‘reform’ ideas are nebulous at best at this moment. Should Suthep’s demands be met by an accommodating Senate and other government agencies, the caretaker government be toppled and a replacement to be appointed, the country is inching from a sustained political crisis towards a fully destructive impasse, under which a compromise is becoming even more difficult than it already is. Then Thailand really becomes the Quagmire Country.