Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Long History of Political Uncertainty

Established as a unified kingdom in the 14th century, Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized by a European power. In 1932, a bloodless coup resulted in the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Since then, Thailand has had over seventeen charters and constitutions, the most recent being drafted in 1997 and 2007. All of Thailand’s charters and constitutions have permitted a constitutional monarchy, with the prime minister as the head of government, a hereditary monarch as the head of state and a judicial branch independent of both the executive and legislative branches. The powers assigned to each branch under different charters and constitutions have, however, varied significantly.

King Bhumibol (pictured above) has been the ruling monarch since 1946, and although he has little direct power under the constitution, he is a symbol of national identity and commands a considerable amount of popular respect. He is also seen as the commander on moral authority as he often steps in to mediate political crises that threaten national stability.

The Thai constitution drafted in 1997, called the “People’s Constitution,” is the first permanent constitution. It is considered a landmark in terms of the degree of public participation involved in its drafting as well as the democratic nature of its articles. The first prime minister to rule under the “People’s Constitution” was Chavalit Youngchaiyudh, who was elected in 1996. The public, however, quickly lost confidence in him and his party with the onset of the 1997 financial crisis.

Thaksin Shinawatra, and his party Thai Rak Thai (TRT), won the January 2001 elections, running on a populist platform of economic growth and development. His populist policies generated sizable support from rural Thailand, as he introduced programs that included debt relief for farmers and a more affordable health care plan. Rural support helped him win reelection in 2005, but soon after, allegations of tax fraud and high-level corruption within his party spurred political protests from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Public protests led by PAD called for the resignation and impeachment of Thaksin.

With increasing public uncertainty Thaksin was ousted by a bloodless military coup in September 2006. The military appointed an interim prime minister, and by the end of 2007 it drafted a new constitution and held general elections. Samak Sundaravej, of the People Power Party (PPP) was elected as the new prime minister, but protests continued as the new government was seen as a proxy for Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party that was barred from politics for five years. Like Thaksin, Samak had overwhelming support from rural voters which helped elect him to office. This enraged members of PAD who are a loose coalition of royalists, businessmen and the urban middle class.

Throughout 2008 PAD conducted sit-ins and protests that shut down Thailand’s two main airports, crippling the tourism industry. Protests led to the court decision to ban the ruling party, PPP, in November. Following the court ruling, Abhisit Vejjajiva defeated an ally of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a parliamentary vote to become Thailand's fifth head of government in a little over two years. Abhisit Vejjajiva is a member of the Democratic Party, and he draws the majority of his support from the middle class, similar to PAD. He lacks the support of the rural and working Thai.

The ongoing clash between political parties is referred to as a struggle of Red-shirts vs. Yellow-shirts. Red-shirt protesters and supporters generally identify themselves with Thaksin and PPP. Yellow-shirt protestors are members of PAD, who oppose Thaksin and his allies. With Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in power the yellow-shirts have called off their protests as they have accomplished the goal of ousting both Thaksin and PPP from office. Tensions, however, still exist between the two parties and the yellow-shirts are paying careful attention to discontent that may arise from red-shirt supporters.

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