Thailand vote secures stability, for now

By Bob Herrera-Lim

The strong win by Pheu Thai (PT) Party representing the allies of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra at the July 3 parliamentary elections will allow the country to avoid any serious near-term instability. The incoming PT-led coalition government will have about 300 seats out of 500, which makes it much harder for anti-Thaksin groups to reduce the new government's majority, either through disqualifications or defections, and engineer a legal takeover as they did in 2008.

In the meantime, the military and the crown will pragmatically avoid any outright provocation or direct confrontation, a strategy the PT will also pursue. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha is strongly anti-Thaksin, but he cannot move without justification, such as a popular or political movement similar to large anti-Thaksin rallies in 2006. Prayuth will likely negotiate some near-term deal that avoids a major shuffle of military commanders and secures Thaksin's agreement not return to the country without proper legal proceedings.

The monarchy will be similarly constrained. The king appears disinterested in current politics, so it is the queen and Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda who will guide the monarchy's strategy. They too can only be effective if there is some "popular" movement that has effectively mobilized against the government. In the past, the Yellow Shirts (organized and financed by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul) provided this momentum. But Sondhi's relationship with the military and the Bangkok elites has eroded significantly since 2008 when the Yellow Shirts blockaded the airport and precipitated a political crisis.

There has been some speculation that the PT's political agenda could provoke the military or the monarchy, but this risk remains relatively low. All signals indicate that the PT is aware of how any early and public attempt to secure Thaksin's return, or ban party dissolution could lead to an early and distracting political battle. Prime Minister-elect Yingluck Shinawatra was quick to emphasize national unity and deemphasize an immediate return by her brother. Laying the legal groundwork for his return, managing the political dynamics around it, and negotiating with the other elite factions will likely be done over the next few months behind the scenes. Constitutional change will also be pursued carefully to avoid triggering a similar fight.

Whether this temporary peace will lead to longer-term stability remains uncertain. The anti-Thaksin factions among the elites may now recognize that elections will sometimes deliver results they disagree with, but which they must respect. But they may instead maintain their belief that the popular vote is unreliable, that the electorate is susceptible to promises of economic largesse and populist rhetoric, and that when necessary the results must be overturned. The future of Thai democracy will be decided by the outcome of that decision.

Bob Herrera-Lim is a director with Eurasia Group's Asia practice.

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