Thai elites mobilise to overthrow reforming Yingluck government

Anti-government protesters in Bangkok

By Jane West

The decision by Yingluck Shinawatra to call a snap election in Thailand in response to a determined attempt by the right to overturn her democratically elected government is a high risk strategy, despite the fact that her party would almost certainly win in any fair election. The right-wing monarchical elites and the army in Thailand know they cannot win in a free election and so are looking for an opportunity to delegitimise or distort the electoral process and impose an army or so-called technocratic ‘people’s council’ government instead.

In 2006, in very similar circumstances, the then Prime Minister (and Yingluck’s brother) Thaksin called a snap election to try to resolve the crisis. Knowing that they could not win against Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party (Thai Love Thai), the right boycotted the election. The subsequent claims that the elections were not legitimate were used as the excuse for the 2006 military coup, the imposition of an army-backed government, abrogation of the 1997 constitution and the events that led to the ouster and exile of Thaksin.

It is yet to be seen whether the right will attempt similar tactics this time round against Yingluck and the Puea Thai (For Thai) party. The Thai army and urban elites have never accepted their 2011 election victory.

Yingluck and Puea Thai won the 2011 election outright, only the second time this has happened in Thai electoral history, taking 265 seats in the 500 seat Parliament (boosted to 300 seats by its subsequent coalition with several small parties). The ironically named, opposition Democrat Party – composed of monarchists, aristocrats, army officers and urban elites backed by the army – trailed in with 159 seats.

The 2011 victory of Puea Thai continued an unbroken string of election wins for parties linked to Thaksin Shinawatra – the exiled previous Prime Minister – since 2001.

In 2001 Thaksin won 40 per cent of the popular vote, the largest share won by a Thai political party to that date, in an election generally considered to be the fairest and freest in Thai history. Then in 2005, having become the first Thai Prime Minister to serve a full term, he went on to win an absolute majority of seats – another first in Thailand. After the right-wing boycott of the 2006 snap election and the coup, the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party (PPP) again won the election called in 2007. But in 2008 this government was juridically overturned – the PPP Prime Minister was forced from office on the absurd basis his being a TV chef was a conflict of interest! A minority right-wing government was imposed. But nonetheless, Yingluck won in the next election in 2011.

The fact is that although the army, pro-Monarchy right and urban elites can mount significant anti-Thaksin mobilisations in Bangkok and the richer more developed south of the country, the majority of the population – especially the rural poor – support Thaksinite policies and parties. And for good reason.

Thaksin and Thaksinite governments since 2001 have carried out a range of policies aimed at improving the standard of living of the rural poor in particular. While making no moves to carry out a land reform, the measures Thaksin took between 2001 and 2006 – debt relief for farmers reeling from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the funding of rural social projects and micro-development programmes, village development programmes to expand the road and electricity network to rural areas, the provision of free health care and a significant expansion of education, including funded scholarships for rural communities – were extremely popular with the mass of the population.

Under Thaksin income in the poorest north-east of the country rose by 46 per cent, and income inequality fell significantly (when it had been rising from 1996-2000). The healthcare programme increased access to healthcare from 76 per cent to 96 per cent of the population, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS fell. Other measures included the legalisation of Thailand’s estimated 2.3 million migrant workers, creating a legal national lottery used to fund education programmes, and a range of economic and other projects aimed at developing small rural business and alleviating rural poverty.

At the same time Thailand recovered from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and GDP grew from 4.9 trillion baht in 2001 to 7.1 trillion baht in 2006, repaid its IMF debts 2 years ahead of schedule, and public sector debt fell from 57 per cent of GDP in January 2001 to 41 per cent in September 2006. The new Bangkok airport was completed, energy policy was overhauled, and a modernisation of the state bureaucracy was initiated.

The traditional elites became increasingly alarmed by the measures taken by Thaksin’s government, as they began to raise confidence and militancy especially among the rural poor, while his overhaul of the archaic, elitist state bureaucracy threatened vested interests. Although a hugely successful Telecoms entrepreneur and billionaire, Thaksin is firmly outside the system of elites – organised around the army, Monarchy, its ‘court’ elite with protected privileges, an autocratic bureaucracy, and Bangkok’s wealthy socialites and entrepreneurs – that have run the country through direct or indirect military rule since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932. The army has carried out 11 successful coups (plus seven unsuccessful attempts) since 1932.

In an escalating attempt to overthrow Thaksin’s government, the army and urban elites organised the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and its ‘yellow shirt’ movement, based on the better-off, urban dwelling minority of the Thai population. This movement, strong in Bangkok and the richer South but weak elsewhere, explicitly campaigned against his pro-poor policies. It was encouraged by concerted media campaigns claiming that he had ‘insulted’ the monarchy (a crime under Thai law) and allegations of corruption.

This movement led directly to the 2006 coup.

In 2006 and 2008, the PAD and the ‘yellow shirt’ movement mobilised to demand the resignation or ouster of the pro-Thaksinite governments, in a campaign of violent civil disobedience aimed at preventing the governments from meeting and bringing the country to a halt. Their tactics ranged from surrounding the Parliament building with razor wire, occupying government buildings and blockading Bangkok airport with the tacit support of the authorities.

In response, the rural-based, pro-Thaksin, ‘red shirt’ movement took off. Between 2009 and 2011 it engaged in a series of escalating campaigns against the illegitimate Abhisit government calling for new elections. In the course of this campaign for the restoration of democracy at least 91 red shirt supporters were shot and killed by the military.

When the 2011 elections were eventually called, Yingluck ran the Puea Thai election campaign on promises to increase the minimum wage by 40 per cent, introduce a 50 per cent subsidy to farm prices, provide a computer for every school student and deliver justice for the families of the 91 killed in the 2010 protests.

In government she has faced a continuous destabilisation campaign from the right. Even the disaster of the worst floods in Thai history – during the 2011 monsoon – were exploited by the elites to demand a ‘state of emergency’ and suspension of civilian government. More recently she has faced charges of ‘insulting the monarchy’, which would be grounds to expel her from office and survived a ‘no confidence’ vote.

The latest round of yellow shirt mobilisations is undoubtedly the most serious attempt to overthrow civilian government since 2010. The movement, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister for the Democrat Party, rejects new elections, which he knows the opposition cannot win, and instead explicitly calls for government by an unelected ‘people’s council’.

One thing is clear, the Thai people have shown repeatedly that they support Thaksinite (i.e. anti-elite and pro-poor) parties to run the country. No coalition of the army, the right-wing, pro-monarchy, parties, or the establishment elites and bureaucracy can command a popular majority.

But this is simply not acceptable to the Thai ruling classes and if they cannot win an election then – as they have done time and again in the past – they simply propose to do without elections altogether.

When Yingluck was elected the army’s response was to say it would ‘allow’ Yingluck to form a government and not interfere with the election result. But this in itself implied the threat that it could or would intervene if it saw its interests threatened.

That is what is at stake in the events in Thailand today. In these circumstances, whatever its shortcomings, progressive forces stand for a victory for Yingluck in the coming elections, against any right-wing boycotts or coup preparations, and refuse to be fooled by the populist rhetoric of the reactionary yellow shirt mobilisations.