Thailand: Yingluck sleepwalks into the trap set by anti-democratic forces

Yingluck Shinawatra (centre).

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

December 21, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai government were pressurised into dissolving parliament by a nasty coalition of Sutep Tuaksuban’s Democrat Party, middle-class protesters, pro-military academics, conservative civil servants and NGO groups. This is the same coalition that supported the 2006 military coup.

Having now tasted blood, they want more. They are demanding that Yingluck resigns her position as caretaker prime minster, a role stipulated by the constitution. They want the election to be boycotted by opposition parties. They also want to postpone the general election, which is due in early February. They are justifying this by their dishonest claim to want to “reform” Thai politics before any new election.

But what they are really seeking is to change the election rules so that the Democrat Party can win more parliamentary seats. The Democrats have never won more than a third of the national vote over the last 20 years. This is because the party is a conservative party of the elites and big business that is against using public funds to provide jobs, welfare and decent health care. In addition to the vote fixing they seek, they want to reduce the role of elected politicians and increase the role and power, even further, of elite-appointed conservatives. Already the military appointed constitutional judges have ruled that they can prevent an elected parliament from changing the constitution.

Disgracefully, the Electoral Commission, which is supposed to oversee free and fair democratic elections, is also putting pressure on the government to postpone the election and compromise with those who wish to reduce the democratic space. The Pheu Thai Party and its supporters in the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) Red Shirt leadership have failed to counter these attacks on democracy. Yingluck is sleepwalking into a trap set by elite anti-democratic forces.

Earlier, her party made a dirty deal with the military, promising to give amnesty to the generals and the Democrat Party politicians who murdered protesters in 2010. Pheu Thai hoped then to be able to bring Thaksin Shinawatra home. Another part of that deal was to assure the military that it would retain all its power and privileges and also defend the continued use of undemocratic lèse majesté law. So far the military has been sitting on the fence in the confrontation between Sutep and Yingluck.

Real democratic reforms would involve a complete overhaul of the judiciary, the introduction of a jury system, the withdrawal of the military from politics and the media, the scrapping of the lèse majesté law and the end to impunity for state murderers and coup makers. However, this is very far from the minds of those who now bleat out the call for “political reform”.

It’s class, not geography, stupid!

Many commentators on the Thai political crisis continue to trot out nonsense about the Red Shirts being rural villagers or migrant workers to the city and Sutep’s Yellow Shirt supporters being Bangkok residents. Yet the results from the 2011 general election showed that in the 33 Bangkok constituencies, the Democrat Party won 44.34% of the vote, while the Pheu Thai Party won 40.72%. Pheu Thai even won two seats from the Democrats. Overall, Pheu Thai managed to increase their Bangkok seats by a total of four. The Democrats still had more seats, but lost seven.

This shows that the Bangkok population is evenly split between Pheu Thai and the Democrat Party and this is based on those who have house registrations in Bangkok. Thousands of rural migrant workers who work and reside permanently in Bangkok are registered to vote in their family villages. If they were registered where they actually live and work, Pheu Thai might have achieved an overall majority in Bangkok.

The only area of the country where the Democrat Party has some strength, are some areas of the south where Sutep Tueksuban’s family dynasty control politics through a system of patronage. Some members of his family are also MPs. Other areas of the south are also controlled by long-standing Democrat Party patronage, such as Chuan Leekpai’s constituency. Such patronage makes a mockery of Sutep’s avowed aims to “reform” politics. Democrat Party patronage predates Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai and one factor which helped create it was the support given to the Democrat Party by ex-Communists in the region. Apart from these historical aspects, the south is also the most prosperous part of Thailand, with the exception of Bangkok. Much income is generated from tourism and higher value agriculture.

The real division between the “Reds” and the “Yellows” in the current crisis, which dates back to 2005, is class. There is a clear tendency for workers and the poor to middle-income farmers to support Pheu Thai and the Red Shirts, irrespective of geographical location. This is because of [Thaksin Shinawatra's] Thai Rak Thai’s pro-poor policies of universal health care, job creation and support for rice farmers. In the provinces and in Bangkok, the middle classes and the elites tend to vote for the Democrat Party and want to reduce the democratic space and turn the clock back to pre-Thai Rak Thai times.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and dissident. In February 2009 he had to leave Thailand for exile in Britain because he was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. His book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who watch Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs. His website is at]