When Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva came to office just over a year ago, few expected him to stay long. His two predecessors had been toppled by royalist protests and controversial court rulings. Concerns were rising that Thailand, a longtime US ally, was becoming dangerously divided and ungovernable.
Since then, Mr. Abhisit has consolidated his political base. He has faced down sharp challenges from his opponents, including antigovernment unrest last April that saw armed troops retake the streets of Bangkok. In recent months, the battered economy has revived, buoyed by stimulus programs and a tentative sense of normalcy.
But street protesters aligned to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a coup in 2006 and lives in exile, are gearing up for more disruption. A protest was held Monday outside Bangkok. The ruling coalition has also been rocked by a Health Ministry corruption scandal.
Bridging political divide?
Still, Mr. Abhisit, leader of the Democrat Party, seems determined to stay the course. He says that his administration has governed effectively for Thais across the political divide.
The political divisions “are still there,” he says, in an interview. “But we’ve shown that we’re a government that can maintain order, can get other policies done, even long-term policies on welfare issues, and do this while respecting the rights of the political opposition,” he says.
Critics say that Abhisit remains in power because of his powerful backers, principally military commanders who were at loggerheads with the previous administration and refused to put down a royalist airport siege in 2008. By clinging to power, Abhisit reinforces the perception that a partisan establishment has undermined the democratic process, these critics say.
Were parliamentary elections to be held today, pro-Thaksin forces are favored to win, though not by an absolute majority, according to political analysts and Western diplomats. Such a result, a virtual rerun of the 2007 elections, could spark further turmoil along ideological and class lines.
“I think Abhisit and his party are afraid of elections. If we have elections, Thaksin’s party will win, without any doubts. Thais feel that Thaksin is the underdog and hasn’t been treated fairly,” says Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent social activist.
Abhisit says that he won’t dissolve parliament until he is sure that fair and orderly elections can be held. A parliamentary committee has tabled proposals to amend six constitutional clauses that would be put to a popular referendum. He accuses the opposition Puea Thai party, which is loyal to Thaksin and favors a return to Thailand’s 1997 constitution, of scuttling the reforms.
“I thought we’d agreed on a set of rules until Thaksin called it off. That suggests the problem is not with us, it’s with Thaksin,” says Abhisit, speaking after a weekly live broadcast on state TV.
Born and educated in the UK, Abhisit rose rapidly through his party’s ranks and took over in 2005 after an election defeat. He is among Thailand’s youngest-ever political leaders and is popular among Bangkok’s moneyed classes and star-struck women.
But his boyish good looks and educated patina aren’t necessarily a calling card in Thailand’s political culture, says Kavi Chongkittavorn, a columnist for the pro-Abhisit Nation daily. Other Thai media have criticized him as too reserved and ineffectual, in contrast to politicians schooled in roughhouse tactics.
Mr. Sulak says Abhisit is a clean, respectable leader who lacks conviction. “He’s a nice boy.… But he has no guts, no moral courage. He just plays along with the game to survive,” he says.
Nonetheless, Mr. Kavi argues that his hold on power appears secure. “I didn’t expect him to last this long. Now I think he will last until the end,” he says.
That could mean Abhisit staying until the end of 2011, when parliament’s four-year tenure ends. His opponents say that would be undemocratic, as he lacks a popular mandate and was installed in dubious circumstances. Abhisit says he was chosen by a majority of MPs and is a legitimate prime minister.
He also pushes back against critics who call him beholden to the military, pointing to the lifting of martial law last month in four districts in the Muslim-dominated south, where a shadowy insurgency has raged since 2004. Military commanders have tried to resist curbs on their powers to round up suspects and to control lucrative development budgets in southern hot spots.
“These are clear policies made by politicians,” says Abhisit, referring to his southern strategy. Asked if elected civilians had full control over Thai security forces, he replied, “close” to it.
A wildcard in Thailand’s fractured politics is the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch. He has been in hospital since last September to treat a lung infection. As a constitutional monarch, Bhumibol wields limited formal power but in practice has been highly influential and a unifying figure in Thai politics, making his departure a pivotal event.
Many Thais fear that a royal succession could be destabilizing for the country as the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is unpopular, though such concerns are rarely aired in public due to strict laws. Pro-Thaksin factions have publicly challenged the politicking of palace factions, including their endorsement of the 2006 coup.
Abhisit says he understands public concerns over the monarch’s eventual passing. “I think it’s inevitably going to be a very anxious and difficult time ... but Thai society must rise up to the challenge,” he says.