Divided, Thailand eyes ruling party's first steps

The majority coalition is expected to name a controversial prime minister.

Apichart Weerawong/AP
Sharp-tongued: Samak Sundaravej, known as ‘Dog Mouth’ for yelling at reporters, is expected to become Thailand’s next prime minister.

After two years of upheaval, including prolonged street protests, a botched election, and a military coup, Thailand is edging back toward a degree of political normalcy. But the bitter rivalries exposed by the coup and the polarization between voters in rural and urban areas may prove hard to heal.

Lawmakers chosen in Dec. 23 elections held under a new junta-dictated constitution will convene soon to select a prime minister. Samak Sundaravej, leader of the People Power's Party (PPP), is widely expected to win, allowing him to form a government under a six-party coalition that has a comfortable majority in the 480-seat parliament.

In a snub to the junta, Thai voters last month handed a solid victory to the PPP, a political vehicle for the return of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the 2006 coup. Efforts to overturn the results in the courts have since fizzled, leaving crestfallen coup leaders little choice but to disband, hand over power, and slip away, largely unmourned by a public weary of their ham-fisted ways.

"They botched the coup. They lost credibility and legitimacy from their mismanagement," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. A key reason was that a consumption-driven economy responded poorly to the prodding of the junta's loyalists, slowing growth and driving away investors. "Thailand has changed a lot. The military's mind-set has stayed the same," he adds.

Military leaders are now on guard for any vengeful move by the incoming administration. Some analysts say there may be an unofficial truce between the two camps that includes a compromise choice as defense minister and no change of the top brass. Weakened by political blunders, the generals and their royal backers are beating a tactical retreat, but that doesn't mean they're out of the game.

"The pendulum has swung back. It makes sense for Thaksin's antagonists to retreat and take care of their own interests.… [But] I don't think it's a lasting deal that both sides can live with. It's strategic," says Michael Montesano, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore.

The flashpoint could be the return of Mr. Thaksin, whose influential wife appeared in court Jan. 23 on corruption charges that have been filed against Thaksin and her over a 2003 land deal. She said Thaksin would come back in May to defend himself in the case, which is the only prosecution that the junta managed to bring against him, despite its accusations of widespread corruption during his five-year administration.

Mr. Samak, a political warhorse, brings his own baggage to the table. He served in right-wing military governments during bloody repressions of students and street protestors in 1976 and 1992. More recently he has sparred with the local media, earning him the epithet "Dog Mouth." Samak has also locked horns with Prem Tinsulanonda, the chief adviser to King Bhumibol Adulyadej and a prime mover behind the coup, according to pro-Thaksin politicians. After the election win, he claimed that a "hidden hand" was trying to stop his party from taking office, a comment seen as a rebuke to Mr. Prem.

Analysts say Samak may be a short-lived premier. He faces an outstanding corruption probe into procurement contracts during his term as Bangkok governor.

Attention is now turning to how the PPP balances its political supremacy with public expectations of a credible cabinet, particularly in economic jobs. Having won the elections by campaigning as populists in the rural heartland, the party needs to win over skeptics in business circles in Bangkok, where the opposition polled strongly, says James Klein, country director of the Asia Foundation. "Samak can afford to antagonize the media, but not the business community," he says.

One wild card is the response of social activists who organized mass rallies against Thaksin in 2006 and are opposed to his return. Activists fear they'll be singled out for revenge. But massing crowds on the same scale may prove difficult, say analysts. It would also expose the rift between the rural electorate that backed Thaksin and the urban elites who resented his economic handouts to the poor, a rift that the military cited as a justification for its takeover but did little to mend.

Lost in the debate over the shape of a PPP-led cabinet is the security situation in southern Thailand, where fighting between Muslim separatists and security forces has cost 2,800 lives since 2004. Observers warn that the violence is increasing, leaving a pressing challenge for the next government.

Last week, eight Thai soldiers died when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb and fired on by militants. This and other daytime attacks are possible because local Muslims aren't willing to inform on the militants to Thai security forces, says Sunai Pasuk, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who monitors the conflict. "Soldiers are no longer seen as protectors or guardians. They're seen as abusers," he says.

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