Thailand’s political conundrum

July 1st, 2011

‘Politics-proof’ is how Thailand’s economy is sometimes described, reflecting the continued growth of business despite the presence of a deeply-divided, and sometimes violent, political landscape. The country’s economy is slated to grow 4-5 per cent this year.

But as 67 million Thais go to vote this weekend, the dangerous chasm between the elite and the masses may be exposed again. And it could mean yet another phase of uncertainty in Thailand, after more than half-a-decade of turmoil.

Although few expect any extraordinary impact of the polls on the country’s economic scene, especially since both major political parties have a similar agendas, mainly comprising big ticket infrastructure investments and schemes that will support rural spending, there is a feeling that prolonged disorder may just dent investor confidence.

On Sunday, the Puea Thai Party, effectively led by the country’s fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawantra, which has put up Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck as its candidate, is widely expected to win. And in spite of the likelihood of incumbent Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat party ending up on the losing side, not many feel it will give up without a fight.

At the heart of Thailand’s political conundrum is the deep division between the country’s elite, including the Army and the bureaucracy, who continue to back Vejjajiva, and the wide swathes of rural masses, where Thaksin remains widely popular, in part due to the pro-poor policies unveiled during his time in power.

Given the forecasts for these polls, trust is at a premium. In particular, the stance of the Army has been questioned — they forced Thaksin out of the country after a coup five years ago — even though the country’s top general has sought to downplay such fears.

It is another matter that General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army, has had an uneasy relationship with Thaksin and played a major role in the 2009 and 2010 military crackdowns on pro-Thaksin ‘Red Shirt’ campaigners when more than 90 were killed.

Another part of Thailand’s political puzzle is the role of the ageing monarch, 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who continues to be highly regarded in the country and is seen as a unifying factor amidst the turbulence.

With the world’s strictest lese majeste laws, where any insult to the royal family can mean imprisonment, the Army has remained steadfast in its support of the crown, a fact that may have its own ramifications in the post-election scenario.

For India, Thailand is crucial to its ‘Look East’ policy and an important part of the 10-member Asean bloc. With over $6 billion in bilateral trade, a figure slated to double by 2014, and about $1.5 billion of Indian investments in the country, there is a distinct economic perspective to the relationship.

However, the creation of a stable and democratic Thailand, in an extended neighbour rife with threats and opportunities, could mean much more for New Delhi as it seeks to forge a distinctively liberal partnership with Southeast Asia.

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