When Havoc is a Political Strategy

The ousting of Thailand's prime minister may weaken the governing party, but it won't produce a productive change in leadership, says Aim Sinpeng.
By: /
May 15, 2014
SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political Science, McGill University

Is Thailand heading towards a civil war?

Not quite, but the situation is bleak and appears to be getting worse rather than better. The political maelstrom the country is in recently intensified as the Constitutional Court ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for abuse of power on May 7, 2014. The very next day, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) indicted Yingluck for her role in a controversial rice-pledging scheme.

In the past few months, Thailand saw major interventions by the country’s court and independent institutions in what some may have (naively) believed as measures to quell unrest in a nation marred by a near-decade of conflict. First, the February 2 election was annulled by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that voting failed to take place on the same day, violating the nation’s constitution. The verdict was delivered despite glaring evidence that voting could not be held nationwide due to an electoral boycott (illegal under Thai law) and protests of the anti-election/government movement, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). The incumbent Pheu Thai Party, led by Yingluck, was slated to win yet another election, but was forced to continue functioning as a caretaker.

Following her indictment, Yingluck Shinawatra was not just ousted from power but is also facing criminal charges. The Constitutional Court ruled that she and nine fellow cabinet ministers acted illegally when removing the head of the National Security Council, Thawil Pliensri. This is not a “surprising” verdict given that this case was ruled in favour of Thawil twice previously by the Central Administrative Court and the Supreme Administrative Court. But it was the anti-government group of senators aligned with the PDRC that brought this matter back to the Constitutional Court as a way to unseat the government.

The “impeachment” strategies are among the myriad of tactics the PDRC and other anti-government elites sought to weaken, batter, and oust the Pheu Thai government. Through a combination of streets protests and protests through institutional channels (courts, senate, parliament), anti-government forces are bent on dislodging this government in any way they can. Given that the incumbent would likely win in the electoral arena, the PDRC and its supporters have strong incentives to create as much damage to the ruling party as possible before an election can be called and organized. Although Pheu Thai negotiated a “deal” with the Election Commission of Thailand for a new election date on July 20, so much uncertainty and risks stand between now and then that the voting itself could potentially be postponed if the political situation worsens. Now, the best strategy for the PDRC is to create as much havoc as it can to further weaken the already beleaguered government and ensuring that an election would not happen.

Yet the annulled election and the ousting of Yingluck merely served to intensify the conflict rather than produce a productive change in leadership. Already, the pro-government Red Shirt supporters have staged several mass rallies to shore up support for the government and to challenge its antagonist, the PDRC. Major triggers of mobilization like the removal of Yingluck from power have in the past tended to radicalize a political movement, which means a greater potential for violence. Meanwhile, the PDRC remains aggrieved and “dissatisfied” that all Pheu Thai cabinet members were not dislodged from power. They, too, have announced an “all-out-war” to return Thailand to reform.

In the coming months, Thailand is certain to be victim to more protests, confrontation, and violence as the country’s political elites squabble for power and use popular political platforms to do so.