Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A new storm brewing?

Thailand will remain in suspense until Tuesday, when the Election Commission will decide on suspended PM-to-be Yingluck

Dark clouds continue to hover over Thai politics, and the saying that Thais have been cursed to live with one political suspense after another is not an overstatement. Over the next six days, the whole country will once again have to hold its collective breath, this time over whether the possibility of having its first female prime minister will be shattered. Yingluck Shinawatra has been "suspended" by the Election Commission, and the fragile political peace depends on the further actions of the EC, which will be made public on Tuesday.

The EC bombshell - its decision to delay endorsing Yingluck, outgoing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and 14 other party-list candidates as MPs - may prove overblown if the panel was simply reacting to complaints against the affected politicians as it traditionally does. But it may turn earth-shaking if the 16 - particularly Yingluck - remain unendorsed next week. The bad news for Yingluck is that while it is not unusual for the EC to delay endorsing accused candidates (who are normally confirmed later), it has never before acted against party-list winners in this way.

An upsetting situation

Disqualifying Yingluck alone would be enough to send red-shirt protesters back onto the streets. But on Tuesday, the EC did more than just suspend Yingluck. Several red-shirt leaders on Pheu Thai's party list did not get endorsement, a situation that is upsetting the entire red-shirt apparatus. The movement yesterday decided to postpone next week's concert at Lumpini Park so it can "charge the battery" for a new rally if something bad happens to Yingluck and the red candidates.

The delay has cast a shroud of uncertainty over the process of convening the new House of Representatives and the election of the new prime minister. The law requires a quorum of at least 475 MPs to convene the House, whereas only 358 election winners have been endorsed. However, since the law allows the EC to "endorse first and disqualify later", analysts believe the new House could convene in time, within 30 days of the July 3 election.

But even if the 475-MP quorum is met, Yingluck must be in it to prevent turmoil. If she is disqualified, the Pheu Thai Party can nominate another party-list winner for the prime minister post. Parliamentary problems can be dealt with, but those on the streets may not be as easy to solve.

Yingluck has reportedly been cleared of vote-buying after charges involving her cooking noodles for her supporters were dropped. But the EC has kept alive more serious and potentially more damaging charges concerning her involvement with banned politicians during the election campaign. She mentioned the "advisory" role of her brother Thaksin many times during the campaign, and election posters depicting her as Pheu Thai's prime ministerial candidate blatantly declared: "Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai does".

The Democrats, it seems, are not in much better shape. If Abhisit is found guilty of vote-buying - his case is related to a government-sponsored sales event on an advanced voting day - they may face a party dissolution saga all over again. Some pro-red critics claim Abhisit was put among those unendorsed only to make the whole list look unbiased. However, there are analysts who believe Tuesday's EC action was intended to sweep both camps away to pave the way for a new political order.

Whether or not a conspiracy to rid both the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties of their key figures is brewing, the EC is not in a sound position either. The charges against the red-shirt leaders on the party list, in particular, are complicated and may be subject to serious loopholes. The panel may have become as vulnerable as the people it has suspended, and history is not on the commission's side when it comes to legal counterattacks by its so-called victims. Former commissioners have been jailed for malfeasance.

Yingluck may survive this easily if the "EC is just observing tradition" theory is correct. But whatever the EC's motives, this post-election saga has provided her with the first real glimpse of what lies ahead. If or once she's officially elected prime minister, a floodgate of political problems is likely to open. Her testimonies in the Thaksin assets case will come back to haunt her almost immediately, and experts believe that what she said during that trial may even match the EC's announcement on Tuesday in terms of loopholes.

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