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Thailand Political Confrontation Eases But Uncertainties Remain


In Thailand, political tensions have eased following the announcement by Thaksin Shinawatra that he was stepping down as prime minister. The announcement followed months of street protests that shook the Thaksin government and brought snap elections on April 2. However, Mr. Thaksin's departure has not ended political uncertainties in the kingdom.

Thaksin Shinawatra put a temporary end to months of anti-government protests by taking a leave of absence and saying he would not be a candidate for prime minister in the next parliament. Despite his de facto resignation the confrontation is likely to continue between his government and the protesters, who accuse him of corruption and abuse of power.

Mr. Thaksin's party won a majority of the vote in the April 2 snap elections, which were boycotted by the three main opposition parties. But it also received a vote of no-confidence from one-third of the voters, who cast abstention ballots.

Moreover, the elections failed to fill 39 seats in parliament because ruling party candidates running unopposed in these districts did not receive 20 percent of the votes as required by law.

Chulalongkorn University Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak says a constitutional crisis is looming. Because of the boycott the Election Commission may not be able to fill all the vacancies as required before parliament is to convene on May 1.

"It's a dilemma for the Election Commission. If the reruns [elections] are not complete, if some constituencies still need to be rerun again, the Election Commission has 30 days to open parliament," he said. "This is going to be a constitutional challenge."

If this occurs, he believes Thailand's Constitutional Court will have to rule on the matter.

Organizers of mass street demonstrations that shook the government say they will resume their protests unless Mr. Thaksin resigns as party head and quits politics altogether.

The Asia Foundation's representative in Thailand, James Klein, says this cannot happen, however, until the new parliament convenes.

"At this time it's not legally possible for him to step down as caretaker prime minister," said Klein. "He's gone on leave technically. But legally that's all he can do." He says only after parliament convenes could the opposition push for Mr. Thaksin to resign from all his positions.

Opposition parties, which are also boycotting the rerun elections, are not likely to recognize the new parliament or any government chosen by it.

A former Election Commission member, Gothom Arya, says a large number of voters will not accept the new parliament but nevertheless due process must be followed.

"The boycott or the non-acceptance is one thing, but what is written in the constitution is another," he said. "So the process will continue according to the constitution."

Thitinan says, however, that constitutional reform, which both sides say is needed, may be delayed by the deadlock over the new parliament, which the opposition views as illegitimate. "If the legislature takes the lead in revising the constitution then that will become certainly unacceptable to Thakin's opponents and to many Thais in general," he said. "This is one of the next hurdles we have to cross."

Thitinan says as a result the two sides may have to negotiate an agreement on how to revise the constitution, perhaps through an impartial commission of non-political legal experts like the panel that drafted the original document nine years ago.

Gothom says such a commission would need to address provisions that make it difficult to remove governments that have lost the people's support. "We have to look at how shall we regulate the so-called political market," he said. "Should it be very free, or moderately free, or somehow restricted? It's my opinion it's too restricted nowadays." He says in addition, regulatory bodies, like the Election Commission, must be strengthened to make them more immune from political interference. And ways must be found to guarantee individual rights already in the constitution.

Asia Foundation's James Klein says that allegations of corruption against the Thaksin government have underscored an emerging political concern.

"The major issue that has emerged over the past decade is a greater concern, particularly amongst the middle class, about the need for ethics in politics," he said.

Thitinan says political leaders must learn that being elected by a landslide vote does not give them the right to engage in corruption or abuse their power.

But, he says, people need to find ways to remove governments without resorting to means outside the constitution.

"This has to be a unique occasion [event]. We cannot have this kind of overthrowing the popularly elected prime minister every time we are dissatisfied," he said.

He concludes, however, the more immediate challenge is to produce constitutional reform and elections that will restore legitimacy and political order.

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