May 26, 2007

Thailand: The Challenge of Eroding Royal Support

Source: Stratfor

May 25, 2007 18 36 GMT


Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej said May 25 the restoration of democracy in Thailand remains on track, effectively withdrawing his unconditional endorsement of the military-backed government. In its eagerness to dismantle the party of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the government had started taking the king's support for granted -- consequently dismantling a key base of its legitimacy.


In a nationally televised ceremony May 25, Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej warned the country's top judges against dissolving Thailand's two main opposition political parties in a Constitutional Court verdict due May 31. He described Thailand's political situation as not good at all and implied that dissolving the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, founded by ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the Democrat Party would damage the nation's image. This is the first time the much-revered king has criticized the military-backed government's performance so publicly since it came to office after Thailand's September 2006 coup.

The king, who is considered a near-divine authority on what is best for Thailand's social well-being (he has devoted much if not all his life to establishing social programs throughout Thailand), typically steps into Thai politics only when stability is threatened. The last time the king spoke out against an incumbent government (under Thaksin), that government fell. By speaking out now, he is effectively withdrawing his unconditional endorsement of the military-backed government. He also is lending credence to rumors that the May 31 ruling probably will order the dissolution of the two opposition parties, something likely to spark mass violence in Bangkok.

The two opposition parties in question face charges of electoral fraud, and will be dissolved if found guilty by the government-appointed panel of nine constitutional court judges May 31. This would bar both parties' executives from politics for five years and therefore from participation in December's election. This blatant obstruction to Thailand's promised democratization process is the first issue capable of generating significant unrest or violence in Bangkok to have arrived in recent months. Opposition groups have long been hoping for just such an issue to help trigger a countercoup.

The Thai king's top concern is maintaining stability in the capital, hence his assurances to the public that promised democratic elections actually will arrive in December. Likewise, the identity of the two parties his words might have saved from dissolution is irrelevant to him, since it was the consequences of their dissolution -- unrest -- that he is trying to prevent.

The struggling regime has no choice but to respond immediately to address the king's concerns given the political weight that royal statements hold in Thailand. The regime's original goal in guiding the judges toward a guilty verdict was to eliminate the TRT from Thailand's political landscape as a warning to all opposition parties straying too far from the government's wishes. Simultaneous dissolution of the Democratic Party would have aimed to uphold the widely accepted Thai concept of balance and unity.

The king's statement means the Constitution Court in all likelihood will dissolve one of the opposition parties, if any. Though this will protect the government from a potential backlash, that and sticking to the promised electoral timetable will no longer be enough to secure its position given how heavily the government's legitimacy rested on the king's unconditional endorsement.

To prevent the king's support for the government from slipping further, and for the government to pick up what pieces are left of its public credibility, the government will have to deliver in other areas -- such as containing continued militant violence in the south. Given its lack of success in this endeavor in the nine months since coming to office, the government's options -- and days -- appear to be limited.

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