Commentary: Thailand’s reconfigured government is old wine in new bottles
Once an adversary of the conservative establishment, Pheu Thai is now its buffer against demands for sweeping reforms, says an ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute researcher.
SINGAPORE: Politics in Thailand has seen much turbulence and change recently.
On the morning of Aug 22, 100 days following the May general election and after months of political wrangling, Thaksin Shinawatra, the Pheu Thai Party’s de facto leader and former prime minister, returned to Thailand from exile. Upon arrival, he was immediately taken into custody and sentenced by the Supreme Court for offences he was found guilty of during his time in exile.
In a turn of events that could be interpreted as either a masterstroke or a risky gambit akin to a hostage swap, Srettha Thavisin of Pheu Thai was elected Prime Minister despite his party finishing second in the May election. Just 10 days later, Thaksin received a royal commutation of his sentences from eight years altogether down to one year.
On the surface, there appears to be little change in the status quo. Srettha’s rise was supported by a coalition of 11 parties, including the military-backed Palang Pracharath and United Thai Nation, as well as senators closely affiliated with General Prayut Chan-o-cha. Thaksin’s return to Thailand and subsequent pardon also bear the stamp of approval from the conservative establishment.
Although General Prayut is no longer in power, remnants of the regime he helped establish after the May 2014 coup still seem to persist. Moreover, nine ministers from the Prayut administration now serve under Srettha, and their privileged positions in the new administration suggest that the new administration is a mere change in leadership without a substantial shift in the balance of power.
Yet, a significant transformation is unfolding within the ruling structures that maintain the current conservative order, marking the most substantial realignment among the Thai elite in the last two decades.
Once an adversary of the conservative establishment, Pheu Thai has now come to serve as its buffer against the demands for sweeping reforms coming from below. Put differently, Pheu Thai’s machinations are essentially a direct response to the threats posed by the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) and the pro-democracy movement that propelled the MFP to victory in the May election.
THAI POLITICAL SYSTEM FAILS TO ACCOMMODATE DIVISIONS
While this elite reconfiguration has been framed as signifying an end to Thailand’s persistent colour-coded conflicts, this narrative oversimplifies the situation.
Specifically, it does not address the underlying systemic issues that have long fuelled the conflicts between pro-Shinawatra and pro-establishment forces, such as regional economic disparities, state-sponsored violence against protesters, and divergent perceptions of democracy and corruption.
If anything, the recent political shifts expose the upper echelons of power’s blatant disregard for lingering ideological divisions.
These are divisions that the current political system now fails to accommodate, particularly among those who perceive their electoral mandate as having been compromised, misrepresented or effectively annulled by the alliance between Pheu Thai and the conservative establishment.
Pheu Thai’s supporters, many of whom participated in the Red Shirt Movement that faced violent suppression in 2010 and protested the ousting of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, cannot be expected to readily embrace the forces they hold responsible for those events.
Likewise, staunch conservatives who see Thaksin as a corrupting influence and the Red Shirt Movement as illegitimate are unlikely to change their views overnight. The political turmoil catalysed by Thaksin’s exile is unlikely to conclude merely due to his return and subsequent pardon.
For over a decade, Thaksin has been the lightning rod for conflict between opposing groups in both electoral and street-level politics. However, the recent shifts suggest that the focal point of tension is moving beyond Thaksin.
All signs indicate that a new political fault line centred on the role of the monarchy is here to stay.
After all, Pheu Thai only managed to ascend into the corridors of power after making explicit promises to refrain from undertaking monarchy-related reforms and excluding the MFP. Progressives will gravitate away from Pheu Thai towards the MFP, seeing it as the rightful party to undertake popular reform.
Conservatives, on the other hand, find themselves at a crossroads: Either adapt to new political realities by reconciling with Thaksin and Pheu Thai as the lesser of two evils or assume a distinctly conservative position that no longer offers blind allegiance to the monarchy.
A FRAGILE COALITION
The current government, inheriting these simmering tensions, has adopted a reconciliatory approach, forming a grand coalition that claims to represent all interests - except those championed by the MFP.
However, the fragility of this coalition calls into question its “grand” status. In a true grand coalition, previously exemplified by the Thai Rak Thai in 2001, the defection of a single party or faction would not jeopardise the entire alliance.
As it stands, however, if the Bhumjaithai Party were to withdraw its support during a no-confidence debate, that alone could unseat Srettha, a prime minister lacking in political standing, whether in Pheu Thai or the broader coalition.
Of course, the stability of the current administration does not solely rest on its capacity to manage internal conflicts and agendas among its coalition partners. Its performance will also come under scrutiny, especially given the lack of electoral legitimacy following what many perceive as a betrayal of the voters’ mandate.
The new administration’s policy statement, unveiled on Sep 11, includes measures like a 10,000 baht (US$280) digital wallet scheme, debt relief, reducing energy costs, revitalising tourism and constitutional reform.
However, the litmus test for this government’s resilience may not concern its policy performance or internal cohesion, but rather its capacity to strike a precarious balance: How can Pheu Thai, and by extension Thaksin, serve the interests of the conservative establishment while simultaneously damning the ever-growing discontent and disillusionment from pro-democracy forces?
Though the administration may talk the talk of reform, its track record casts serious doubt on any real commitment to democratic change. In the end, the government’s ability to reconcile these contradictions could very well determine not just its own future, but the trajectory of Thai democracy itself.
Napon Jatusripitak is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary first appeared on the Institute’s blog, Fulcrum.