x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Thailand's leaders barred from politics

Thailand is plunged into political darkness after a court disbands the ruling PPP and bans its leaders from politics.

Anti-government protestors celebrate a court decision against the ruling party.
Anti-government protestors celebrate a court decision against the ruling party.

BANGKOK // Thailand has been plunged into political darkness after the country's constitutional court disbanded the ruling People's Power Party (PPP) and barred more than 10 of its leaders from politics for the next five years, including the prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat. The decision came as no surprise to the PPP and its leaders, who already had a contingency plan in mind. "Our members are determined to move on and we will form a government again out of the majority that we believe we still have," said Jakrapob Penkair, a former deputy prime minister forced to resign this year and a close associate of one of Mr Somchai's predecessors as prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. But the court decision does seem to have prompted the anti-government protesters, led by the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to end their blockades at two of the country's airports. Security staff are to check the airports today and flights could resume as soon as 24 hours after they have been cleared, offering relief to the 350,000 passengers stranded in the country. Jubilant anti-government demonstrators have agreed to allow flights to resume at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi international airport after a week-long blockade. "As of this moment the PAD will allow flights to take off and land immediately, both passenger and cargo flights," a senior member of the alliance, Somkiat Pongpaiboon, told journalists at the airport. The court's decision to dissolve the PPP and two of its coalition partners for electoral fraud related to the 2007 elections has left a power vacuum in Thai politics. No one seems to be in control and confusion reigns over the constitutional process to resolve the latest impasse. "It's a very fluid situation and anything could happen," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor with the English daily newspaper, The Nation. "It will take a few days to sort this political mess out. "In the meantime, the key issue is to prevent violence and bloodshed erupting because of the continuing political crisis," he told The National. Thailand is now essentially in the hands of two rival mobs - with government supporters, dressed in red as a show of strength, controlling central parts of the capital, and anti-government protesters, dressed in yellow to signify their support of the king, who occupied the city's two main airports for more than a week, effectively cutting the country off from the rest of the world. In the meantime, what is usually the most important part of the political equation in Thailand - King Bhumibol Adulyadej - continues to remain silent, although many are hoping the king's speech, usually made on the eve of his birthday celebration, may be the signal for the two opposing sides to find a compromise. Much may depend on what he has to say tomorrow evening - if the precarious peace lasts that long. The fear is that the two rival groups may clash on the streets, forcing police to intervene and ending in violence. Both sides have armed elements. In the past few days there have been frequent blasts that have left several people dead and scores injured. Early yesterday a hand grenade was lobbed into the PAD protesters camped out at the domestic airport at Don Muang, killing one and injuring more than 20. No one has claimed responsibility, but the protesters are certain they know who did it. "The country is fast heading for unprecedented violence and bloodshed," said Buranant Samuratak, a spokesman for the Democrats, the main opposition party in parliament. Dissolving the government party and barring the prime minister and nearly half of his cabinet from politics has done little to ease the decision - though it was entirely expected. The court ruling will do little to solve the political deadlock. Concerns grow that the country is on the edge of slipping into violence and civil war. The divisions within Thai society that have given rise to the current crisis run deep and cannot be resolved without significant efforts at national reconciliation, which can come about through some form of negotiations. The court's nine judges were unanimous in their decision to disband the PPP. "The court has decided to dissolve the party to set a political standard and an example," the chief judge, Chat Chalavorn, said while delivering the verdict, which televised and broadcast by the local media. "Dishonest political parties are undermining Thailand's democratic system." Gile Ji Ungpakorn, who teaches politics at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said in an interview: "It's effectively another coup by the country's elite, who cannot accept the legitimately elected government. The royalist alliance against the government is made up of the PAD, the queen, the military, the police, the judiciary, the Demcrats Party and most middle class academics: they are all behind this judicial coup." Few would disagree with his analysis, but for most Thais, the issue is how to resolve the current stalemate. In a recent national poll, 92 per cent of those interviewed wanted both sides to respect the law, while four out of every five described the political turmoil as a national shame. Two out of three of those interviewed by the ABAC poll said they supported neither side. In another poll, a little less than half of those interviewed wanted to see a speedy end to the political crisis, whether by coup, snap elections or negotiations. One in four interviewed in the Suan Dusit Poll thought it was necessary for the military to intervene to end the crisis. One of the current deputy prime ministers, Chaovarat Chanweerakul, has taken over as caretaker prime minister, at least until the interim cabinet meets to decide who should lead the government for the timing being. Parliament needs to reconvene to elect a new government. Under the new constitution, drawn up under the former military government, the prime minister must be an elected MP. The politicians of the three disbanded parties, except those barred from politics, have 60 days to join another. In anticipation of the court ruling, the PPP leaders have already established alternative, which most MPs are expected to join. "We will all move to a new party, the Puea Thai Party, and seek a vote for a new prime minister on Dec 8, when parliament reopens," said Jatuporn Prompan, a PPP parliamentarian and key organiser of the red shirt street protests. But some analysts believe this is by no means certain at the moment. "There is a lot of horse trading taking place behind the scenes, and it is possible the Democrats may emerge and form a national unity government," Mr Kavi said. ljagan@thenational.ae