By Alexandra Sander
Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai administration survived intact after two unrelated attempts to discredit the government and remove Pheu Thai from power. Anti-government group Pitak Siam November 24 held its second rally at the Royal Plaza calling for Yingluck’s government to step down. However, weak turnout and early clashes between police and protestors encouraged organizer Gen. Boonlert Kaewprasit to cancel the rally and resign from his leadership role in Pitak Siam.
Opposition Democrats, led by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, November 25-27 held a no-confidence debate in parliament, culminating November 28 in a failed no-confidence vote. While highly critical of the government overall, these recent events demonstrate Thailand’s growing political stability and commitment to democracy.
The Pheu Thai party and Yingluck’s landslide victory in the July 2011 national elections resulted in the first democratically elected government since former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from power in a 2006 military coup. Thaksin, Yingluck’s older brother, lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai, avoiding charges of corruption in Thailand. Mass protests in 2010 by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, also known as “Red Shirts,” devolved into violence as political tensions boiled over killing 92 and injuring upwards of 2,000 people.
The recent displays of political opposition in the public and political arenas indicate that Thailand is losing its taste for military intervention in politics, and the opposition is using more legitimate means to challenge those in power.
Pitak Siam’s November 24 anti-government rally fizzled when only an estimated 20,000 of the expected 100,000 protestors showed up at the Royal Plaza. The demonstrators claimed political corruption, Thaksin’s continued political influence, and his alleged disloyalty to the monarchy as the primary reasons for opposing the Pheu Thai government. The government, wary of Pitak Siam’s intentions, deployed 17,000 police to maintain peace and security and invoked the Internal Security Act (ISA), which, among other provisions, allows the army to work with the police to prevent violence. Protestors clashed with police in front of the Government House and police used tear gas to control the crowd. Boonlert, originally vehement in his rhetoric against the government, called off the rally due to the confrontation and low turnout. He subsequently resigned from his position of leadership in Pitak Siam. Yingluck November 26 lifted the ISA.
The Democrat-led no-confidence debate and the subsequent no-confidence vote targeted Yingluck, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, Defense Minister Sukampol Suwannathat, and Deputy Interior Minister Chatt Kuldilok. The three-day debate focused on allegations of corruption, specifically Thaksin’s influence on the Pheu Thai government and political appointments, the government’s mismanagement of the rice pledging scheme, and inadequate flood prevention projects in the wake of the devastation caused by the October 2011 flooding. Not surprisingly, Yingluck and her government survived the vote of no-confidence. Pheu Thai and its coalition partners enjoy a decisive majority in the Thai parliament and the Democrats were unable to consolidate sufficient support for their motion.
Ultimately, Prime Minister Yingluck and the Pheu Thai government remain in power because of widespread public support and democratic legitimacy. Neither Pitak Siam nor the opposition Democrats succeeded in amassing enough support to challenge that legitimacy. In spite of their failure, it is important to recognize both groups had the freedom to express their discontent and hold the government accountable in a more predictable environment, marking another step for Thailand in reestablishing democratic norms.
Ms. Alexandra Sander is a researcher with the CSIS Chair for Southeast Asia Studies.