Likely outcome: An appointed PM

BANGKOK - Protests and street violence may dominate headlines, but the real end game of the worsening political crisis in Thailand may have been decided behind closed doors.

While uncertainty remains, well-placed sources on both ends of the political spectrum say the writing is on the wall: A new, appointed prime minister will be proposed by the Senate soon.

There are grave doubts as to the constitutionality of such an action, or of invoking the Thai Constitution's Article 7, which in essence says that when all else fails, one can go to the King for his blessing to appoint a "neutral" leader. The embattled caretaker government will certainly resist this move to dislodge it under a cloak of legality.

But even insiders in the ruling Puea Thai party acknowledge that resistance is futile, given the political blows the government has already suffered in recent months.

The most devastating ones came in the past week: Then premier Yingluck Shinawatra was disqualified by the Constitutional Court on May 7, and indicted a day later by the National Anti-Corruption Commission for a botched rice-buying scheme.

This left Ms Yingluck open to impeachment and a ban from politics, prompting her to retire to her home town Chiang Mai to lick her wounds.

Political insiders say the move to appoint a new, unelected premier has been the goal from the start, given the apparent invincibility of the Puea Thai election machinery. This scenario was in fact outlined some two months ago for The Straits Times by a 92-year- old retired general.

Over a white linen buffet lunch overlooking the salubrious green expanse of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, a bastion of Thai high society, he predicted that endless rounds of street protests would paralyse the government.

Ms Yingluck would then lose at least one or maybe two of the court cases against her. Given the leadership crisis, Article 7 would be invoked, and the King would eventually be requested to appoint a neutral interim prime minister.

What the retired general foresaw has largely come to pass, with the exception that the caretaker government has held out for longer than expected, forcing the royalist People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) to sustain its protests.

Though the King has made known his disinterest in Article 7, that has made little difference to those in the rival political camps, who have invoked loyalty - and disloyalty - to the monarchy as a weapon.

The big question now is who will emerge as the appointed prime minister. There is speculation that the candidate could be one of the King's Privy Councillors. Other names being mentioned are former foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai, and former finance minister Pridiyathorn Devakula.

But even if everything goes according to plan, those seeking to oust the caretaker government would still be walking a tightrope.

While an appointed prime minister, if endorsed by the King, may be reluctantly accepted by the international community as a fait accompli, governing at home will be a different matter.

For starters, the unelected leader will not be recognised by the government's supporters. A violent backlash by pro-government militant groups is also all but certain. A foretaste of this came early yesterday when men using grenades and M-16 assault rifles attacked the PDRC's protest site at the Democracy Monument - a short distance from the United Nations building and the Khao San Road backpacker hub. The attack, which lasted over 20 minutes, left two dead and over 20 wounded.

If the violence spirals out of control, the Thai army may be forced to intervene - something it has been reluctant to do because it knows the backlash could then turn against it. The intervention could come in the form of martial law rather than a coup d'etat. But neither outcome will pacify the increasingly agitated pro-government supporters.

This article was published on May 16 in The Straits Times.

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