Role for kings in Asia's democracies

Embattled Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra has called for elections Sunday as crowds urge the king to step in.

As embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra digs in his heels against a strident street campaign to oust him, opposition leaders are turning to Thailand's final arbiter.

Not the Constitutional Court, which batted away a petition to probe Mr. Thaksin's alleged misdemeanors. The ballot box is also mistrusted: Opposition parties are boycotting Sunday's parliamentary elections. Instead, protesters are turning to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's revered constitutional monarch, in the hopes he will urge Thaksin to step aside.

Thailand's political crisis has thrown a spotlight on democratic rule in Asia's other surviving monarchies. In Nepal, a 14-year experiment with multiparty democracy was suspended last year by its king, who is accused of seeking absolute powers. By contrast, Bhutan's king has set a deadline of 2008 for the creation of an elected parliament, and his own abdication.

Observers say monarchs in Asia's emerging democracies have provided a check against political extremes, though their presence may also slow the building of other constitutional checks and balances. But that downside may be unavoidable in the short term, while institutions slowly take root.

"Our Supreme Court [in Nepal] has been there for the last 50 years. But the monarchy has been there for nearly 300 years. We're talking about institutions, and they have their own norms," says Tara Bahadur Thapa, Nepal's ambassador to Bangkok.

Last February, King Gyanendra dismissed the government and assumed direct rule in the face of a growing Maoist insurgency. Political leaders called it a ruse to snuff out democracy. The resulting standoff and lingering shock from the palace massacre in 2001 that killed the previous king have raised doubts about the institution's survival.

Gyanendra has pledged to restore parliamentary rule within three years.

Analysts say his dictatorial rule has eroded trust in the monarchy, making it harder for any king to play a balancing role in Nepal's fractured society.

However, opinion polls don't suggest the nation is ready for a republic, says Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times. "People distinguish between the king personally and the constitutional monarchy. They still say we need a monarchy, but they don't like the way it's going under the current king."

In Thailand, calls for royal intervention in politics have echoed for months, galvanized by opposition to Thaksin and the tax-free sale of his family-owned media group to foreign investors on Jan. 23. Tens of thousands have protested in Bangkok against the takeover and Thaksin's ethical conduct.

Protesters want the king to appoint an interim replacement to Thaksin. So far, their pleas have gone unheeded; palace courtiers have instead urged dialogue and compromise. But the calls grow louder, day by day, as does the heated rhetoric across the political divide.

"If this issue drags on, we can't control the violence and people will die. Then finally we need someone to end the crisis - sooner or later, the king has to intervene," says Sen. Chermsak Pinthong, who backs a royal intervention.

To defuse the standoff, Thaksin called Sunday's snap elections. But the boycott has raised doubts that the parliament can be convened under laws that require a minimum vote in uncontested seats. This would create a vacuum that opponents say should be filled by a royal-appointed administration that can hold fresh elections.

Popular support for such a move is tepid, at best, judging by recent polls in Bangkok, where the opposition is strongest. Academics at public forums are divided on the constitutional underpinnings. Even among Thaksin's fiercest critics, there is a sense of disquiet at the readiness of self-declared democrats to seek a royal dismissal of a popular elected leader.

For Thailand to be having a debate on royal powers is highly unusual. Strict lèse-majesté laws and deep-rooted reverence shield Thai royalty from the media glare.

"It's striking that in Thai politics in 2006 an active role for the monarchy is talked about and almost taken for granted," says Michael Montesano, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore. "The king is seen as an embodiment of virtue. Rules and constitutions aside, virtue still counts in Thai politics."

US-born King Bhumibol, whose full name means "Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power," has in the past intervened directly in politics during times of crisis. Most recently, in 1992, he publicly scolded a military premier after his troops massacred unarmed protesters in Bangkok, and presided over a return to civilian democracy.

By contrast, Cambodia's young king hasn't been able to go toe-to-toe as his predecessor did with longtime leader Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Thaksin, however, is neither a military dictator, nor a strongman like Mr. Sen, but an elected leader who still commands huge popular support in the countryside. He has also pledged loyalty to the throne. "Only one person can tell me to resign: his Majesty the King," he has said. "If the king just merely whispers to me, 'Thaksin, you resign,' then I will resign right away."

Campaigners say an emergency clause in Thailand's 1997 constitution allows the king to replace Thaksin, who they say has dismantled the independent bodies designed to check his power.

Thailand has no term limits on prime ministers. Thaksin is accused of installing loyalists on the constitutional court, which came close to barring him from office in 2001 over an erroneous asset declaration. At the time, Thaksin publicly challenged the right of unelected judges to block an elected leader from office. His allies in the senate also tried to remove an auditor-general who was probing corruption, until the palace refused to appoint a replacement.

"There's nothing better [than royal intervention] - the country has reached a dead end," says Chamlong Srimuang, a protest leader who led the 1992 uprising against military rule.

But to some observers, asking the monarchy to step into a political confrontation and play the role of neutral arbiter is unjustified and may undermine Thailand's still-evolving democracy.

"We can't run to the king every time. The present king will not be there forever. We have to start learning how to solve our problems for ourselves," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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