Abhisit Vejjajiva took many by surprise when he declared, almost out of the blue, last week that he was embarking on a new approach to help find a way out of the country's political crisis.
Even some within his opposition Democrat Party weren’t quite sure what their leader was up to. The ruling Pheu Thai Party, while privately expressing satisfaction that one of their arch foes was coming round to their push for another election, was publicly sceptical.
Caretaker Premier Yingluck Shinawatra officially welcomed Abhisit’s gesture but suggested that he should also talk to Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the People’s Democratic Reform Council (PDRC), to convince him to call off the six-month-old rally.
There was no escaping the fact that unless Abhisit could persuade his former deputy premier and Democrat Party secretary general to join the negotiation process, the Democrat leader’s “new strategy” would be taken as just a “tactical move” rather than a real strategic shift.
Abhisit was at best ambiguous about his new plan – to transform his role from being a party to the conflict, to being a “coordinator” for all parties concerned.
“I can’t keep still anymore,” he declared, and immediately launched the first of a series of meetings with “key players” in the reform process, beginning with Justice Permanent Secretary Kittipong Kittayarak. Abhisit then gave interviews to major newspapers and TV channels before meeting the top brass to discuss his proposed “peace plan”.
But he was far from clear over how he was going about his new mission. He was ready only to say that election and reform must be part and parcel of the proposed plan to put an end to the drawn-out conflict. Critics claim the Democrat leader had gone back on his original condition – that election must come after reform. Now, he was saying that he was more flexible on that condition. “Election must be part of the reform,” he declared. That statement raised more questions that answers, obviously.
For the first time, perhaps, Abhisit said he was ready to talk to his arch-rival Thaksin Shinawatra, via Skype. He said he was open to talks with Premier Yingluck and Thaksin, insisting that the meeting should be broadcast live to minimise the chances of the encounter being used by followers of the two sides to discredit each other.
But Suthep has flatly rejected the introduction of a “middle man” to end the political crisis, declaring in no uncertain terms that nobody – no matter how close they are to him – should try to convince him to join in the talks.
“The PDRC has one clear condition: Whatever the proposed solution, Thaksin and his clan and his regime must be ejected from politics. If that’s not on the agenda, forget it,” Suthep said. He didn’t mention Abhisit by name, but it was obvious that he was issuing a thinly-veiled warning to his former boss to refrain from striking a deal with the government for a new election, after the PDRC’s intervention resulted in the Constitutional Court rendering the February 2 ballot invalid.
Reactions to Abhisit’s move have been mixed. Interestingly enough, even Premier Yingluck has come out to ask the public to give the opposition leader a chance to launch a “roadshow”. She probably believes Abhisit has finally come round to the idea of getting the Democrat Party back to the polling booths.
But she might be wrong – or at least partly wrong. Abhisit’s meeting with members of the Election Commission on Tuesday ended with a general agreement that the election could be held only if some firm commitment on reform from all parties concerned was given.
Abhisit has yet to meet Yingluck. He will have to come face to face with Suthep to complete his round of talks with all stakeholders in the conflict.
At best this is a “mission impossible” for Abhisit. He insists he won’t give up, despite all the obstacles and scepticism. His mission may be aborted but Abhisit will leave a trace to be followed. It won’t be a lost cause. Nor will it be a total waste.
Abhisit can never hope to be seen as an “honest broker”, but if he can start the “peace process” rolling, he will have made a significant contribution towards preventing the outbreak of violence at this very fragile juncture.