How you can win all the battles but still lose the war

opinion June 14, 2012 00:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

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Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is supposed to run both the government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party. But she seems to try to portray an aura of being "above politics", even as the country is plagued by one political crisis after another. And in eve

She said she had nothing to do with the reconciliation bills that created a storm in Parliament when opposition Democrat MPs clashed with Pheu Thai members – all the way up to House Speaker Somsak Kiatsuranond. The premier was conveniently absent during the violent confrontations in the House. She was busy with flood-prevention inspections and activities totally unrelated to the crisis of the day.

Then came the new constitutional crisis, in which the Constitutional Court asked the House to put on hold the planned third and final reading of the constitutional amendment bill. Pheu Thai put up strong resistance, arguing that the court had no authority to accept any appeal for an interpretation of the propriety of the proposed charter changes. The court insisted on its constitutional authority in this regard. Both sides claim that their legal interpretation is the right one.
Premier Yingluck was once more busy touring provinces that might be threatened with flooding again this year. Her deliberate absence from the charter crisis was conspicuous.
She has been trying to govern without managing the country’s politics, hoping to distance herself from any possible fallout from her brother Thaksin Shinawatra’s remote-control manipulation.
At one point it might have seemed that she could have feigned political innocence, but things didn’t go as planned. When he spoke to the red shirts in Laos, Thaksin thought he could come home by his birthday in July. He thought he had struck a compromise with the “elite”. The reconciliation bill that was submitted by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the 2006 coup leader turned political ally, couldn’t be rammed through as planned, despite Pheu Thai’s overwhelming majority in the House. It proved more divisive than had been anticipated. 
Then came the thunderbolt from the Constitutional Court, which ordered the House to suspend voting on the final reading of the charter amendments. This, too, was supposed to help propel Thaksin’s return as a free man, also with the hope of getting back his Bt46 billion in frozen assets. But the legal challenge posed a major obstacle despite doubts over the court’s authority to set up a roadblock on Parliament’s right to proceed with the constitutional changes.
Pheu Thai, of course, could just ignore the court’s “hold it” order, since it can easily outvote the opposition and produce some convincing arguments to get the bill approved so that elections can be held nationwide to appoint a panel to draw up a new constitution. 
But the risk of splitting the country further is simply too high. Thaksin may win all the legal battles, but he could still lose the real war, which requires at least a certain degree of national reconciliation.
There are also the complications within the Pheu Thai Party and the red-shirt movement that could prove disastrous for Thaksin in the short term. The ruling party is far from unanimous on how to handle the reconciliation and constitutional amendment bills. Certain factions among the red shirts have expressed clear dissatisfaction with Thaksin’s shift in stand. They seen him as having betrayed their grassroots cause by cosying up to the “elite” to ensure his safe return to the country and resumption of power.
This is perhaps the most worrisome issue for Thaksin. His compromise with his foes required him to disown the red movement. But he can “leave the boat to get in a car” to reach his destination – as he said in his controversial phone-in last month – only at his own peril.
The battles over the two bills have plunged the country into a new crisis. With House Speaker Somsak postponing debate on the two key bills until the next House session, he is simply buying more time. Thaksin may beat a retreat to regroup, but Yingluck can’t afford to “play it safe” without putting the country on a collision course once again. She has to act – and soon – to defuse this huge time bomb that continues to tick even during this brief “ceasefire”.