The Call

Is instability set to stalk Thai streets again?

Is instability set to stalk Thai streets again?

By Roberto Herrera-Lim

Thailand will return to the headlines soon in what will likely be a heated election campaign ahead of the July parliamentary vote. The Democrat Party-led coalition government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is in a race against the opposition For Thais (PT) party and the more well-known Red Shirt movement identified with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Despite speculation about an opposition victory triggering a possible military coup, the ruling coalition has a good chance of holding its ground. Its local party machinery appears stronger than that of the exiled Thaksin, and February constitutional amendments have tipped the party-list race in its favor.

A Democrat Party victory would return some stability to Thailand, at least for the near term, as it would resolve the legitimacy issue that has brought the Red Shirts out into the streets on several occasions over the past few years. The Democrats have been historically inept at maintaining power. But, absent another shock (an economic crisis or the death of the king), they are likely to win and hold on to power for the next few years. And challenges to their subsequent control will come from mainstream politics rather than the streets.

Two factors could make a Democrat win less likely: increased voter dissatisfaction with the economy and the opposition’s ability to recast the elections as a referendum on Thaksin. Economically, the Democrats are most vulnerable on inflation, but they are mindful of this challenge. The government will also cut oil taxes (a gift to Thai farmers) and the Thai central bank is among the most hawkish on inflation in the region. Thaksin will meanwhile do his best to cast the elections as a personal referendum in the hope that voters will vote based on their affinity and loyalty to him, rather than on local issues.

But even if the Democrats win, Thailand’s structurally weak political system maintains the risk of ongoing volatility and unrest. Thailand is nominally a democracy, but the competition for real power takes place between several key players: the monarchy, the Bangkok business community, the military, republicans and, more recently, the Red Shirts. The Red Shirts have a legitimate grievance about the Bangkok-centric politics that have largely deprived the groups they represent (the north-eastern rural poor) a voice in national policymaking. Meanwhile, the four other players compete in a shifting web of alliances, depending on their agendas and perceived weaknesses. If Thailand is to avoid further periodic eruptions of unrest, it will need to build up its democratic institutions. However, none of the major players are currently willing to accept the loss of power that would entail.

Roberto Herrera-Lim is a director with Eurasia Group’s Asia practice.