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The deal behind Thailand's polls

Asia Times - June 30, 2011

Shawn W Crispin, Bangkok High-level secret talks between Thailand's royal palace, military and self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra point towards a stable outcome to this Sunday's highly anticipated election. Contrary to widespread speculation of a post-poll coup and new rounds of street violence, the military is more likely to stay in the barracks if Thaksin's Puea Thai party wins and forms a new government.

Puea Thai has surged ahead in pre-election polls, holding sway in its geographical strongholds and taking the lead in pivotal swing constituencies. The party has rallied around Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, a political novice whose campaign has focused on the need for national reconciliation. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has acknowledged his Democrats trail in opinion surveys, and party members seem increasingly resigned to a second-place finish.

It's a popular result the country's royalist establishment appears to have anticipated. According to sources familiar with the dialogue, Thaksin interlocutor Wattana Muangsook, Queen Sirikit's lady-in-waiting Jarungjit Thikara and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan met in Brunei in February to discuss post-poll scenarios. There have been subsequent meetings between the three camps, including one in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, according to the same sources.

The talks have aimed to avoid new confrontation and foster reconciliation after last year's anti-government "red shirt" street protests and military crackdown resulted in the deaths of 91 people, mostly civilians. They also signal the potential building blocks of a wider accommodation between Thaksin's camp and at least one section of the royalist establishment concerning the looming royal succession from 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej to heir apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

According to a source familiar with the talks, the military has agreed to allow Puea Thai to form a new elected government unopposed in exchange for a vow from Thaksin not to pursue political revenge or legal prosecutions of top military officials behind the 2006 coup and last year's crackdown, and to refrain broadly from intervening in military affairs, including the annual reshuffle that determines the army's leadership. Army Commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a palace favorite and member of the elite Queen's Guard, is eligible to serve three more years in his position.

Thaksin's representative has also been pressed at the talks to rein in the anti-monarchy elements in his camp, including ranking members of his aligned United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group and Puea Thai party, according to the sources. Many royalists believe the UDD's overseas chapters are mainly responsible for the flood of anti-monarchy material that in recent years have been posted anonymously to the Internet.

Fronted by Abhisit's administration, the royal establishment's crackdown on freedoms in the name of defending the monarchy has undermined its international credibility and hit its domestic popularity, witnessed in the Democrat party's apparent flagging support among Bangkok's middle classes after carrying the capital convincingly at the post-coup 2007 polls.

The suppression has given some currency to Puea Thai's calls for democracy, despite Thaksin's own authoritarian record and the party's many highly placed gangster politicians. The Democrats have been at pains to counter perceptions that they have served at the military's pleasure, including by whitewashing its role in killing unarmed UDD protestors during last year's crackdown. Nobody on either side has been brought to account for the violence.

To put reconciliation efforts on a new track, the three sides to the secret dialogue have discussed the formation of a new independent commission whose recommendations, including a potential amnesty for Thaksin, Abhisit and the military, would eventually be put to a national referendum. Surakiart Sathirathai, a foreign minister under Thaksin and known royalist through his family connections, has apparently been agreed to lead the panel.

The election deal, which evolved over a series of talks, builds on an earlier accommodation reached with Thaksin in October last year. That negotiated de-escalation in tensions saw the UDD sharply circumscribe its protest activities, while officials stopped without explanation their earlier bids to extradite Thaksin from exile in Dubai. It also allowed Thaksin access to the 30 billion baht (US$1 billion) of his assets not confiscated in last year's Supreme Court decision that sparked the UDD's nine-week protest.

Meltdown scenarios

Whether the deal holds up after the polls will depend on several mutable factors. Judging by the frequent failure of previous informal and formal talks held since the 2006 military coup, the potential for another meltdown cannot be ruled out.

People familiar with the secret talks believe that Yingluck's campaign emphasis on reconciliation, and Thaksin's and UDD leader Thida Thavornseth's recent public pledges of allegiance to the constitutional monarchy, have deliberately signaled commitment to the deal. Nor have they rallied around jailed UDD co-leader and Puea Thai party list politician Jatuporn Prompan, who was detained after making comments perceived as critical of royal family during a UDD rally in April.

However, people familiar with the talks suggest Thaksin's commitment could falter once his sister and allies assuming, as opinion polls suggest, Puea Thai wins the election are firmly in power with a democratic mandate. His negotiating leverage, including for his own amnesty and political rehabilitation, will be significantly enhanced if Puea Thai wins in a landslide and is able to form a majority government without coalition partners.

Previous behind-the-scenes talks, including an April 2010 meeting between Bangkok governor and Democrat politician Sukhumbhand Paribatra and Thaksin in Brunei in the wake of protest-related violence that resulted in deaths on both sides, have seen Thaksin back away from stated commitments. Similar backtracking was apparent in May 2010 when UDD leaders agreed to dissolve their protest in exchange for early polls but reneged after Thaksin balked.

Just as significant is whether the royal establishment is unified in doing a deal with Thaksin for the sake of stability. It's unclear how King Bhumibol's royal advisory Privy Council would react to any reconciliation proposal that grants Thaksin amnesty for earlier court decisions, including a criminal corruption conviction, and allows for his return to Thailand. While both Prayuth and Thaksin have been vocal during the campaign, the Privy Council has been conspicuous in its silence.

It seems apparent that one side of the royal establishment is keeping its options open for another judicial intervention that could dissolve any Puea Thai-led government soon after it is formed. Thai courts brought down two Thaksin-aligned governments in 2008, paving the way for Abhisit's rise to power through what many believe was a military-influenced parliamentary vote. In 2007, a military-appointed tribune ruled to dissolve Thaksin's first political party, Thai Rak Thai, and ban 111 of its senior executives from politics for five years.

Democrat party politician Kiat Sittheeamorn intimated during a recent presentation to foreign reporters that his party would challenge a Puea Thai win on the grounds that Thaksin has illegally served as the party's leader as a banned politician. Puea Thai has campaigned on the motto "Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai acts" and Thaksin has admitted in press interviews that he personally has devised many of the party's policies. There is also a potential case brewing against Yingluck that may accuse her of perjury in one of Thaksin's asset trials.

Some political analysts read special relevance into King Bhumibol's speech last week to newly appointed judges, advising them to be vigilant and impartial in serving the nation. His previous speeches to judges have come ahead of pivotal court decisions, including ones that have gone against Thaksin and his aligned political parties. Although King Bhumibol is at present confined to a wheelchair due to health complications, a family member has said he is on a recuperation course to begin walking again by July.

King Bhumibol's upright presence is significant. A previous signature campaign organized by the UDD calling for a royal pardon for Thaksin fell on deaf palace ears. The Democrats have bid to leverage into that royal position and have campaigned on a "no amnesty" policy. Yet the three-way secret talks indicate that another side of the establishment sees the need for reconciliation with Thaksin's camp and has apparently lost faith in the Democrats' ability to protect the continuity of its interests after the highly revered King Bhumibol passes.

Earlier this year, there was widespread speculation that Prayuth could move to topple Abhisit to halt his early election plan. Others interpreted the sudden outbreak of armed hostilities with Cambodia in February as the military stoking a national security related pretext to subvert the polls. But while the military is widely viewed as on the ascendency, through rising budgets and policy independence, there are parallel indications of erratic behavior that show it feels more cornered than confident as it becomes more deeply entrenched in daily politics.

According to one military insider with access to top generals, Prayuth and his deputies view another coup as unviable due to the potential for a popular uprising and more bloodshed. Army chief-of-staff Daopong Rattanasuwon, who has been instrumental in army crackdowns on the UDD, recently indicated in private the need to co-exist peacefully with Puea Thai. The top brass, meanwhile, are reportedly "horizon scanning" for scenarios to burnish the military's public image and to step back from politics while maintaining enough power to intervene in case of a threat to the monarchy, including during the succession.

On one horizon is the idea that a deal with Thaksin could represent the best hope for containing the anti-monarchy sentiments unleashed by radical elements in the UDD. While Thaksin was accused of disloyalty to the crown by the 2006 coup-makers, his still close ties to heir apparent Vajiralongkorn could be leveraged to build popular support for the succession rather than the other way around. The two have met several times since the 2006 coup, including in recent months in Munich, Germany, according to one Bangkok-based diplomat.

While the three-way secret talks point towards a smooth democratic transition and new hope for national reconciliation after this weekend's elections, there are still several potential dark clouds on the political horizon. The one thing Thailand's six-year-old political conflict has demonstrated clearly is that there are no permanent friends, enemies or deals, and thus new bouts of instability cannot be ruled out.

[Shawn W. Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.]

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