There is political turmoil in Thailand in the wake of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s resignation. Far from resolving the conflict, the 2 April snap election threatened to plunge the country into a protracted crisis.
It is the first time a democratically elected Thai prime minister – with his party holding three-quarters of the parliamentary seats - has been ousted by the means of months of street protests and a boycott of the polling. Elected to a second-term in a landslide victory just last year, Thaksin won the controversial snap election he called in a bid to end the political standoff. But the outcome revealed an erosion of support in the crucial Bangkok area because of an opposition boycott and millions of abstentions being seen as protest votes against him. Subsequently, it was believed that the King had advised Thaksin to resign to end the political impasse, which could be detrimental for industrial and economic developments especially in Bangkok, which has been regarded as the centre for Thailand’s capitalist activities.
A few days afterwards, Thaksin appointed his deputy prime minister, a close colleague, as acting prime minister to carry out his caretaker duties while he took leave of absence. According to the Thai legal system, parliament has to meet within a month after an election to install the next government. But with control of Parliament assured following the snap election, the ‘Thai Rak Thai’ (‘Thais Love Thais’) party of Thaksin still gets to name the next prime minister.
Thaksin's critics say they believe he will still hold power behind the scenes to control the political direction of the TRT party and will continue pursuing policies promoting privatisation, free trade agreements and a CEO-style administration that characterised his five years in power. In a television interview given the day before his resignation speech, Thaksin appointed Somkid Jatusripitak, the commerce minister who is a career technocrat with a business doctorate from an American university, as his possible successor preferred by businesses and the financial markets.
On the other hand, the Thai legal system requires all parliamentary seats to be filled before parliament can be summoned and a new government installed. Thailand is facing a constitutional crisis after around 38 seats were unfilled when Thaksin party candidates failed to gain the legally required minimum vote of 20 percent.A re-run for these seats might produce the same results after the opposition party announced they would also boycott it unless a royally appointed government is installed to bring about political reform. If the by-elections are indecisive, the Election Commission could ask the Constitutional Court to allow parliament to meet while more polls are held. But that could trigger protests against the court, which has handed Thaksin two favourable rulings in the past. Whether the Constitutional Court - the unwilling power adviser in the present political situation - would play along with the TRT remains to be seen.
At the same time, Thaksin’s resignation as prime minister has revealed the differing agendas of the groups which make up the opposition - parties, students, civil society, unions and others that have united under the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to oust him. They closed ranks after Thaksin was accused of abusing power, in particular of enriching himself in a telecommunications deal. But differences over the fate of Thaksin and his party, over constitutional reform and even over the free trade negotiations with the United States now threaten to splinter PAD.
Sondhi Limthongkul, the media magnate who ignited the anti-Thaksin protests, told reporters at last Friday’s victory celebration that the rallies would be suspended until the beginning of May. If there were no substantive political change by then, he said, the demonstrations would resume and continue through the month. Meanwhile, another protest leader, Chamlong Srimuang, initially declared his mission accomplished, signalling that the Dharma Army (Buddhist movement) that he led would stay away from further protests. But he reappeared on Friday without his followers, telling the crowd: “Thaksin's regime still exists. We will fight, and we will definitely win” On the other hand, the opposition right wing parties like the Democrat Party, who carried through attacks on the working class and poor farmers when they were in government, focus their energy merely to undermine the Thaksin party and demand constitutional reform as political rhetoric in order to widen their electoral support. Meanwhile, other groups like the unions, pressure groups and students want more fundamental changes with the demand to end privatisation and other neo-liberal attacks on workers. But this is not the focus of the PAD leadership. Clearly, PAD for the time being is controlled merely by reactionary elements and leaderships with an agenda that has crystallised around opposition to Thaksin and his policies.
Defender of the free market
On the other hand, the right wing governments in the neighbouring countries have been threatened by Thaksin’s resignation through mass protest - an elected prime minister compelled to leave office by the use of street power which discredited capitalist parliamentary democracy. It is obvious, as one of the right wing news analysts (Hindustan Times) stated, that, “Thailand perhaps needs to see whether its system has some institutional weakness that led to this impasse which is not healthy for a democracy. The political developments in Bangkok could have repercussions not only in the neighbouring Philippines, where pressure could increase for the embattled President Gloria Arroyo to step down, but across the region”.
In the meantime the military has warned activist-protesters to back off and drop demands that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra leave politics altogether. Defence Minister General Thammarak Isarangura Na Ayutthaya said some military officers are thinking about taking action over the issue and he had told the military to be patient, as he knew that soldiers were thinking of making moves against the PAD and its allies. This means that the military could use the Thaksin resignation to hold back further street protests in the future by using repression.
Since 2001, multinational corporations and local industrialists had regarded Thaksin Shinawatra as the best defender of the free market in Thailand, given that he was elected as prime minister with a larger popular mandate than any Thai prime minister had ever had in the freely elected National Assembly of 2001. Soon after, Thaksin presided over the rapid recovery of the Thai economy from the 1997 regional economic disaster. He then encouraged domestic demand and export growth. He emphasised domestic consumption through which growth was spurred. Fanned by domestic consumption, growth was assisted by low-cost loans and tax breaks. These stimulated foreign investment.
Thailand’s US$184 billion economy has expanded 44 percent since 2001 and foreign investment has more than doubled to US$2.7 billion in the three years to 2005. Furthermore, his populist programmes among the majority rural population and the poor had strengthened to a certain extent the political stability of the country. All those characteristics have strengthened the ruling class to further exploit the labour and resources in Thailand, implementing further neo-liberal agendas. It is also obvious that since 2001, the capitalists have established a strong base in Thailand. This means that they would definitely prefer a government that could continue and uphold the policies of Thaksin.
The division between the rural and urban populations will be another advantage for the ruling class to employ divide and rule tactics in favour of themselves. The majority - the 60% rural population - are supporting Thaksin and the TRT populist programmes, particularly in the country’s north and northeast. These groups were neglected by the traditional political elites and Thaksin’s policies, like cracking down on the drug trade, subsidising healthcare and initiating poverty-reduction programmes, have dramatically lifted incomes in some of Thailand’s poorest regions. It was apparent that the Thaksin government was able to make those concessions because of favourable economic developments, especially in the manufacturing and services industry since 2001. This tactic has given him the upper hand to maintain the crucial electoral support from them. But it has been the norm of the free market system to claw back the concessions gained by slashing public spending once the economy is in crisis.
On the other hand, the rural population’s economic contribution, mainly through agricultural activities, accounts for around 10% of Thai GDP, but manufacturing, electronic and service industries, concentrated mainly in urban areas such as Bangkok, account for 80% of GDP. This means that almost 40% of the working class is playing the major role in contributing to Thailand’s economy and generating the huge profits needed by the capitalist class.
Organise for a socialist fight
Meanwhile, only around 2% of workers are unionised at present. The fragmentation and division in the trade unions, which are the norm today, are the direct consequence of this massive repression, during and after the 1970s, when anti-communist hysteria provided every pretext for political repression. The Communist Party of Thailand, which at one time organised a peasant guerrilla movement, was convinced that armed revolution was the only option to carry out the “capitalist democratic revolution”. They mistakenly believed that Thailand was a semi-feudal colony of the United States though it was already capitalist. This was the typically Stalinist and Maoist policy of the CPT. It attempted to make a ‘democratic, capitalist revolution’ and the organisation collapsed by the late 1980s. As well as repression against their organisations, workers are also facing daily exploitation from the employers. Thailand and its neighbouring countries have a surplus labour force. They engage in intensive competition, based on cheap labour, in order to attract multinational companies. As a result, the standard of living of the population is stagnating at a relatively low level with minimum monthly wages at about 500 bahts (108 euros). Workers are forced to accept long working hours – a practice which is completely within the law. In the factories of the massive industrial area around Bangkok, it is common for workers, mainly very young, to work for eight hours - the normal working day - plus two or three extra hours after a minimal break of 20 minutes. The working week is six days, but Sundays can be worked if the companies want them to be. Since the basic wage is so low, the workers do overtime, even working up to 60 or 70 hours a week.
Although the economy has demonstrated moderate positive growth since 1999, future performance very much depends on continued reform of the financial sector, corporate debt restructuring, attracting foreign investment and increasing exports. Meanwhile telecommunications, roadways, electricity generation, and ports have shown increasing strain during the period of sustained economic growth; massive privatisations may be posed in the coming years. All these governmnet experiments will further burden the whole population of Thailand. But since last year, Thaksin’s policies have begun to show some glitches. Household debt has risen 53 percent between 2001 and 2004. Last year in July, as oil prices skyrocketed, inflation hit a six-year high. This led to costs for oil, food and medical care increasing at a faster pace.
But Thailand’s history on many occasions has demonstrated that whenever the ruling class is in crisis, they tend to utilise either the monarchy, the military or the parliamentary system as a tool to curtail the people’s rebellions and to mould the state in favour of the needs of the capitalists. The present political turmoil could lead to something of a similar nature.
Meanwhile PAD has seemed to be volatile, with narrow programmes and a reactionary leadership. It is mainly concentrated on the urban middle class population. The Thai working class at this moment has no political party to express and defend its interests. Nevertheless, Thailand workers and farmers are not lagging in relation to struggles. Many struggles take place but they are fragmented, isolated and do not find expression in the political sphere.
Seeing the future direction that will be taken by Thailand’s ruling class, there will be more difficulties for the working class and poor farmers and in that case, more struggles could emerge. This would expose the necessity for a party that represents the interests of ordinary people and puts forward the need for a united struggle – the need for a working class leadership, allied to the rural poor, the students and the middle class to demand democratic rights and reforms and to fight to throw off the yoke of capitalism, leading towards establishing a socialist society.
12 April 2006
Ravichandren, CWI Malaysia