Q&A: What's behind the political turmoil in Thailand?

For the past several weeks, tens of thousands of demonstrators have filled the streets of Bangkok, demanding that Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra step down. The protesters accuse Thaksin, whose party controls three-fourths of the seats in parliament, of corruption and abuse of power. These accusations have intensified since the January sale of Thaksin's family's telecommunication company to the investment arm of Singapore's government, a transaction on which his family paid almost no tax.

In response to the protests, Thaksin has dissolved parliament's lower house and called snap elections for April 2. Facing almost certain defeat against the populist prime minister, the main opposition parties are boycotting the vote. The election may leave parliament without a quorum, prompting fears of a constitutional crisis.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a professor of international relations at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and a visiting professor of Southeast Asian studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, spoke with csmonitor.com about the unrest. At the root of Thailand's crisis, Wattanayagorn says, is an unbalanced political system, one that gives too much power to the executive branch.

Why are protesters demanding Prime Minister Thaksin's resignation?

In February 2005, the prime minister gained a 75 percent majority, but now people are increasingly becoming aware that the political system is dominated by one single party. In parliament, the opposition parties are so small that they are not able to perform the normal checks and balances, especially in terms of motions to censure, and debates on government corruption. So, for the last four to five years, the parliamentary system has not been functioning very well. It has become more or less monolithic rather than pluralistic.

Second, the opposition groups are accusing the prime minister of trying to take control of the media. His associates and close friends are accused of attempting to buy up television channels, media outlets, newspapers.

Third, the prime minister has been criticized for his spending in rural areas. His infrastructure projects among Thailand's 80,000 villages and the almost-free healthcare policies were received very well in most places in the first year or two, but over the years there have been a number of corruption charges. Increasingly the urban voters are also concerned that they may have to pay more taxes for these projects.

Fourth, the prime minister has been criticized for his heavy-handed policies in the south against the Muslim insurgency, which has resulted in more than 1,000 people losing their lives. And the heavy-handed policies against drug traffickers have also alienated a lot of people.

Lastly, in the last few weeks, news broke about the sale of the prime minister's previously owned telecommunications company, Shin Corp., to Singapore's government. That could be the last straw.

What segments of Thai society oppose the prime minister?

Urban voters, a group that is smaller, but more vocal, more organized, and seemingly more educated. And a few urban poor are also joining them. But that is not the majority of the voters. The majority of the voters are rural, perhaps poorer, and less educated. The prime minister is very popular among these voters. He's very popular in the countryside, and very popular overall, but the urban voters are better organized.

In recent weeks, the opposition has expanded to leading academics, [nongovernmental organizations], public enterprises, and, in general, the middle class. For the time being, it's a very strange marriage among a variety of groups, which is one of the opposition's greatest strengths and weaknesses, depending on how you look at it.

The protesters represent a minority, but one that is more powerful and vocal. They know how to organize, and they have financial support, and they have connections with the media. Governor Chamlong's group is a good example: they are a very small group - maybe between 10,000 and 40,000 members, but very organized and very focused.

Is there a danger that these groups could undermine Thailand's democracy?

Yes, certainly. On one hand, when you have certain members of a society that is not in the majority protesting on the streets and demanding the resignation of government officials outside of any lawful procedures, that is obviously a threat to democratic institutions. This is not a good sign for democratization in Thailand.

But on the other hand, democratic institutions in Thailand are much stronger than in several countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, and I think that these institutions may survive and that these street protests may not be all that bad. Today, democracy in Thailand is not that progressive or liberal: The executive power has much more authority over the parliamentary system than in many Western countries. These protests may lead to constitutional changes allowing for a more balanced system in the future. So it may not be that bad, as long violence doesn't take place in the streets like in the past.

The prime minister has called for snap elections on April 2, but many opposition groups are boycotting the election. What outcomes are likely?

The situation is very fluid. It seems as though the election on April 2 could be held, although there are a lot of problems. Many districts have no candidates, and many other districts have only one candidate. A candidate needs at least 20 percent of eligible voters to win. So we may have a parliament without a full house, which cannot convene. So there may be many more elections after that. We may be in a constitutional crisis. The prime minister is expected to win, but with these problems he may not have a mandate.

So the prime minister may end up negotiating with opposition groups after the election. Certain compromises could be made. The prime minister may set up a body to amend the Constitution. That's going to be a hard fight.

It's also possible that the prime minister may appoint a caretaker to oversee the government while the constitution is amended, and to take the pressure off of him. But choosing the caretaker is going to be a big battle too.

What can be done to prevent such crises in the future?

This current crisis demonstrates that democratic institutions in Thailand are much weaker than we thought. Although the 2005 election produced a majority and a stable parliamentary system, it doesn't mean that democratic institutions are strong and stable. Crisis can strike at any place and any time. The lesson is that many emerging democracies need to strike a better balance in their society, to take into consideration demands from minorities. But we hope that with this lesson we can come up with a more proper, more balanced system without any violence.

Thai society has from time to time had its share of violence, but by and large I think Thai society is quite peaceful, and we hope that traditional institutions such as the monarchy, the temple, and the middle class can act in the interests of the country. That is of course our hope, that this compromise can be reached in a pragmatic, Thai way.

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