Thitinan Pongsudhirak – The Straits Times
The government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has marked one year in office with little fanfare.
It has a clear electoral mandate and a large coalition majority in government but its policy directions have been hesitant and haphazard, destabilized and hemmed in by conservative forces arrayed against her exiled brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who ruled from 2001 to 2006 before his ouster by a military coup.
Yingluck’s immediate task ahead is to hold the ground, generate policy thrust and promote a compromise that will allow Thailand to move ahead.
After taking office a year ago on the back of a resounding majority in last year’s July elections, which returned 265 out of 500 MPs for her Pheu Thai Party, Yingluck faced the external shock of Thailand’s devastating floods for the remainder of last year.
She weathered the flood crisis through personal grit and diligence in the face of government infighting and inter-agency conflicts. While the floods shaved economic growth to just 0.1 per cent last year, Yingluck emerged early this year in a stronger and more confident position. Her government began to roll out its policy promises aimed at uplifting the farm sector and urban dwellers with wage increases, rice price guarantee, debt suspension for low-income earners, tax cuts, tablet computers for first graders, among other so-called “populist” measures.
But these policies were glacial and patchy in implementation. Yingluck was unable to personally explain and steer policy directions. Her ministers were also ineffectual in marketing and shepherding these policies. It seemed as if the Yingluck government merely wanted to recreate the populist magic her brother’s government enjoyed spectacularly a decade ago. Policy wherewithal was later stymied by Pheu Thai Party’s moves to amend the Constitution and ram through a reconciliation Bill.
These moves elicited virulent responses, from anti-Thaksin groups in the Democrat Party and appointed senators in Parliament to the yellow- and multi-color shirts in the streets and segments of civil society in the media and universities. The Constitutional Court intervened and effectively put a stop to charter change and expedient reconciliation. It can be seen as a signal from Thailand’s powers-that-be that there can be an uneasy truce around Yingluck but no compromise to bring back Thaksin.
Yingluck is back to square one after the floods with some truce for her operating environment but without genuine reconciliation. Her strengths are her weaknesses. She is detached and decidedly aloof from the cut-and-thrust of policy formulation and implementation, surrounded by her brother’s lieutenants in a ruling party under his control.
Her charm, appearance, rare patience and cool temperament allow her to maintain political calm as she is constantly heckled and hectored by her brother’s detractors and opponents. Unlike others who may have Teflon or feisty characteristics, Yingluck is like a sponge. She takes in criticisms and condemnations without lashing out, almost the mirror opposite of her brother.
The brother-sister dynamics are critical. Thaksin has so far been completely supportive of his youngest sibling, who is 18 years younger than him. The division of labor between the duo has been clearer. He is a hands-on chairman of the board from afar while she is the chief executive on the ground. He provides overall strategy, policy and tactics but she holds considerable latitude to recalibrate and redirect as she deems fit in the field.
Both have come to the conclusion that it is better to be in than to be out of office and power. The last time Thaksin’s party won the elections in December 2007, his two proxy prime ministers together lasted less than a year and his ruling party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court. The Thaksin camp spent the next 32 months in opposition, punctuated by its disenfranchised red-shirt supporters’ street demonstrations and army suppression in April 2009 and again in April and May 2010. That Yingluck still stands at Government House after one full year is thus an achievement in itself.
But this means Thaksin will have to stay away indefinitely. In fact, it will be difficult for him to live in Thailand again. He may return at least symbolically by re-entering and exiting soon after but he will be hard-pressed to live out his remaining years peacefully in his homeland. Many of his opponents will blame him for making the twilight years of 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej so unpleasant and tumultuous. As he bides his time, Thaksin appears willing to pay the price of indelibly changing the face of Thai politics by maneuvering and hovering all over the world beyond Thailand.
For Yingluck and her government, much is in store for the coming year. As a no-confidence motion and a Thaksin-determined Cabinet reshuffle loom before year-end, Yingluck will have to rely on a firm coalition majority to carry on. She will increasingly have to be mindful and engaged on the policy front. Economic growth and a sense of policy deliveries will need to be maintained.
Above all, she will have to keep major government corruption scandals at bay, and the charter change and reconciliation Bills will have to remain on the back-burner until an enabling environment takes shape.
The army will have to be kept on the side by managed government input in the annual promotions and rotations of the high command. Red-shirt calls for army accountability over their fallen comrades from May 2010 will have to be measured and drawn out lest the army overreacts at the specter of jail time.
While the Democrat Party and anti-Thaksin groups can be counted on to agitate at will to undermine government stability, the red shirts pose a serious concern for Yingluck. Persecuted and jailed red shirts from 2009 and 2010 will require leniency and better treatment, if not exoneration and freedom.
It is a tall order that is likely to be met with regular commotion and confusion and to be handled with much muddling through.
Yet as she is the democratically legitimate leader, the longer Yingluck soldiers on within the confines of Thailand’s democratic game, the more conducive it will be for Thai democracy and its attendant institutions and players to navigate a compromise and a way out.
The writer teaches International Political Economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times