In the aftermath of the Constitutional Court's ouster of Ms Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand stands at a crossroads marked by three avenues: a military coup, an appointed government, or an election.
As the Thai military has repeatedly declined coup opportunities in recent months, the outcome is likely to be either an appointed prime minister and government, as the street-based People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) is demanding, or another election, which is planned for July 20.
The risk of political turmoil and violence will mount if an unelected government takes power. Despite its shortcomings, the best way ahead for Thailand remains the electoral system.
At issue now is whether Ms Yingluck's successor Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan will be allowed, as acting premier, to steer the caretaker government to election day. The Constitutional Court's verdict against Ms Yingluck for malfeasance was merely a power play. True, it involved nepotism. Ms Yingluck indirectly oversaw the transfer of a senior official to enable her brother Thaksin Shinawatra's brother- in-law, Police General Priewpan Damapong, to become the national police chief. It was an insider deal that was typical of Thaksin. It was also routine in Thai bureaucratic rotations, where favouritism is rife.
Bitter political scene
The simple truth is that Thaksin and his opponents have been at loggerheads for a decade. He and his allies have won elections time and again only to see his opponents arrange the demise of his proxy governments. This time the target was Ms Yingluck, and the justification was the Thaksin team's hubristic November 2013 amnesty Bill designed to clear Thaksin's crimes and pave his way back to Thailand. Opposition to the amnesty Bill led to the formation of the PDRC and the current round of anti-government street protests.
After rejoicing at seeing the back of Ms Yingluck, the PDRC, spearheaded by former opposition Democrat Party executive Suthep Thaugsuban, now wants to go all the way. It regards Mr Niwatthamrong's prime ministership as illegitimate, and wants him replaced with an unelected, royally appointed government. The PDRC has pledged not to allow the July 20 election to be held. And the opposition Democrat Party has again indicated that it may not contest the election.
This means the July 20 polls may not resolve the problem. If an election is not in the offing, and a military coup is unlikely, then the temptation for the anti-Thaksin coalition will be to come up with a non-elected outcome. In the absence of an operational Lower House of Parliament, Mr Suthep is working closely and "firmly" with the half-appointed, half-elected Senate to produce an outsider prime minister whose name would be forwarded to the King for counter-signing. The legal justification for this is based on Article 7 of the Constitution, which empowers the monarch to appoint a government if a political vacuum arises.
Whether a political vacuum exists is debatable, as the post-Yingluck government under Mr Niwatthamrong insists on retaining caretaker authority.
Mr Suthep's manoeuvre is dangerous. It is subversive and puts the onus on the King for the counter-signature. Not only that, but as Mr Suthep and other hardline PDRC members press ahead with this game of brinkmanship, their "success" risks fuelling the pro-government red shirts' fury, thereby raising political risks substantially.
So the key to the future of Thailand is whether or not the PDRC gets its way, and whether opposition parties are prepared to re-enter the electoral process. If Mr Suthep's campaign fails and the Democrats decide to join the July 20 race, then an electoral outcome can be expected. In the circumstances, this is the least undesirable outcome.
For its part, the post-Yingluck government made a poor choice when it selected Mr Niwatthamrong as interim caretaker prime minister.
He lacks stature, and is seen as a confidant of Ms Yingluck and an underling of Thaksin. It appears that it was Thaksin's trust, not Mr Niwatthamrong's merit, that catapulted the latter to the top post. Another deputy prime minister such as Pongthep Thepkanchana would have been more acceptable to all sides and less of a lightning rod.
As long as their Puea Thai-led government remains in office, the pro-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) red shirts, already mobilised on the outskirts of the capital, are likely to remain in place. But if there is an outright ouster of the caretaker administration and an ensuing unelected outcome, another red shirt uprising akin to 2009-2010 awaits.
Many of the machinations and much of the drama in Thailand is tragically unnecessary. Those arrayed against the kind of corruption and abuse of power that Thaksin was seen as personifying should know that they can win at the polls if they work hard enough.
Sadly, they have been poorly led by an opposition party that has boycotted two of the last four elections and lost the other two, the last after being in power for 2½ years. It is high time the leadership of Thailand's Democrat Party is changed. The opposition party has essentially forfeited the electoral arena to Thaksin's Puea Thai party.
The Democrats should attempt to regain the electoral momentum by fighting for the hearts and minds of the electorate. But the fact that the Democrat Party has boycotted and thereby undermined the electoral process will make it more difficult for it to win support. Thus it will be tempted to continue looking for shortcuts to power.
Such manoeuvres, however, must stop. The Thaksin party machine can be beaten at the polls. After all, the constitutional rules have already been written in 2007 to curtail Thaksin's power.
Significantly, the Feb 2 election was the first time that Thaksin's party did not win outright, although election results were inconclusive because it was boycotted by the Democrats.
At the end of the day, the Thai electorate will have to play judge and jury. If others do so in disregard of the overall will of the people, Thailand is likely to endure more hardships in what is likely to be dire times previously unseen in the country.
This article was published on May 14 in The Straits Times.
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