Two prospects now for Thailand, and neither is any good

opinion February 22, 2014 00:00

By Simon Tay

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Anti-government protests in Bangkok have lasted more than three months, and yet continue to confuse. Much of the international media assert the sanctity of the vote above all else. Most overly rely on distinctions that the red shirts represent the poor, a

Rather than trying to understand, many have prejudged events. Developments over the past three weeks will further confound them, as a new stage in the situation seems to be emerging. 
Much relates to the vote that went ahead on February 2 despite disruptions at some polling stations. The opposition Democrats had sought a delay and the Elections Commission agreed a postponement could be allowed. Nevertheless, the government exercised its prerogative to push ahead.
Today, although full results are yet to be confirmed, what is emerging may not vindicate Premier Yingluck Shinawatra’s snap poll gamble. 
The South – where the Democrats are strongest – did not complete voting and, without these provinces, a new Parliament cannot convene. In other provinces where voting went ahead, unofficial reports say that less than half of the eligible voters bothered to do so. 
More, early sampling by the well-respected Thailand Development Research Institute suggests support for the ruling Pheu Thai party may show erosion. Questions are being asked about the caretaker government’s effectiveness and legitimacy.
New pressure is emerging in the streets. Rice farmers are now protesting alongside anti-government demonstrators rallied by former Democrat deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban, who are stubbornly resisting police attempts to quash the rallies. The farmers’ presence in Bangkok is a visible setback for Shinawatra supporters. 
The Pheu Thai pledge at the last elections to subsidise rice farmers attracted strong support from rural areas but was always controversial economic policy. The subsidies have cost billions in taxpayer money and made rice exports uncompetitive – the country has slipped from the top spot to No 3 in the world. 
The farmers’ complaints cast further doubt on the social benefits of the scheme. On top of this, investigations for corruption have caused the Chinese to back away from an earlier pledge to buy rice. 
Contrary to Premier Yingluck’s hopes, her administration looks shakier after the elections than it did before. Yingluck is under further pressure after being charged by the Anti-Corription Commission for negligence in overseeing the rice scheme. However, this does not mean that the protesters led by Suthep will have their way.
Protesters’ demands for a non-elected committee to run the country, and that the Shinawatras be banned from politics, are unacceptable not only to the international community but to many moderate Thais. 
While it has not ruled out a coup, the military is clearly reluctant to seize power, as it did in 2006. Instead, calls are emerging for a new caretaker government that is neutral – featuring neither Suthep nor the opposition Democrat Party. This would only be an interim arrangement to review Constitutional and other rules so that a free and fair election can be held. 
If this or some other compromise cannot be reached, two prospects arise. Neither is any good. 
The first is for violence, beyond what has been seen so far. There is increasing impatience on both sides and violence can spike – especially if the red shirts and others who still support the Yingluck administration come out into the streets. 
The second is an economic crisis. At present, stronger companies and the industrial sector remain confident even as smaller businesses and the tourism sector are feeling the impact. But a protracted stalemate and paralysis of the Yingluck administration will worsen matters. 
In the wake of the US Fed tapering, emerging economies with deteriorating macro-economic figures or visible political instability are being punished by skittish markets. Thailand is drifting towards both these tendencies. 
As anti-government protests gear up and pro-Shinawatra supporters dig in their heels, it is hard to discern what compromise might be acceptable. The majority of Thais however realise that, despite elections, no one is winning.
Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, an independent think tank that was recently ranked by a global survey as No 1 in Asia and the Pacific.