The stakes in post Thaksin Thailand
As Thailand's judicial noose has tightened all around him, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has thrown in the towel. He has failed to return to Bangkok to appear at the Supreme Court hearings on his alleged abuse of office involving the auction of a prime land plot on Ratchadapisek road in Bangkok in 2003.
At issue in the aftermath of his escape from the law are whether the unfolding and unprecedented judicial assertiveness will be able to settle Thailand's protracted political polarisation and stalemate, and whether Mr Thaksin's opponents will be able and willing to incorporate his legacy into post-Thaksin Thailand.
On the Ratchadapisek land scandal, Mr Thaksin allegedly used his position as prime minister to aid his wife, who won the bid at one-third the price of the appraised value. Facing the spectre of jail time because the Supreme Court's ruling will be final, Mr Thaksin and his wife - the latter already having been convicted and given a three-year jail sentence by the Criminal Court for tax evasion amounting to 546 million baht - have called it quits.
They skipped Bangkok after attending the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in favour of London, where he has issued a defiant hand-written note citing political persecution and judicial double standards. With his political road now at a dead-end, Mr Thaksin's departure from the Thai scene has far-reaching repercussions.
First and foremost, he and his wife will face insurmountable legal entanglements. Having jumped bail in her recent tax fraud conviction, Khunying Potjaman is now a fugitive, unable to return indefinitely without facing immediate arrest. Mr Thaksin is likely to face the same fate because the court cases will continue in his absence.
The Supreme Court has issued arrest warrants for the couple for their absence from the hearings on the Ratchadapisek land case.
Apart from the land scandal, other cases at work stem from Mr Thaksin's accountability while in power during 2001-06, including the Thai Exim Bank's dodgy loans to Burma's military government to purchase Shinawatra-owned satellite services, the legalisation of the underground lottery, the irregular procurement of rubber saplings for farmers, changes to the excise tax regime to benefit Shinawatra-owned telecom firms, among others.
Convictions in any or all of these cases would render Mr Thaksin a fugitive on the run. The United Kingdom's lenient extradition law, however, is likely to allow the couple to remain there as Mr Thaksin's defence will presumably be based on the grounds of politically motivated legal prosecution and the lack of personal safety and fair trial.
His roughly US$2 billion that has been frozen by the post-coup authorities will likely be held up indefinitely, if not confiscated subsequently. It is virtually impossible for him to return to high office given these legal cases and the powerful forces who have opposed him since his overthrow in September 2006.
He would be lucky, as he himself recognised in his hand-written statement, to end up on Thai soil again.
Second, Mr Thaksin's departure will further weaken his grip over the ruling People Power party, whose factions are likely to run amok. As the PPP is facing a vote fraud investigation that could result in its dissolution, the chances of its factions bolting or shifting their allegiances away from Mr Thaksin will increase with his legal trouble and absence.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is likely to gain significant leverage over some of the PPP camps in view of Mr Thaksin's second political demise. Mr Samak is now the only present leader of both the PPP and the coalition government. He is likely to be more assertive in an effort to prolong his rule and prepare for the consequences of the Constitution Court's dissolution decision late this year or early next. Mr Samak has grown into his own prime minister, contrary to expectations. Few have underestimated him more than Mr Thaksin.
Third, the post-Thaksin weakening of the PPP means that we are unlikely to see a dominant political party, such as the once-invincible Thai Rak Thai which was dissolved in May 2007, in Thai politics in the foreseeable future.
The executive branch will be relatively weak and ineffective, party politics more fractious and unruly, coalition government unstable and unable to last a full term. The legislature will be equally divisive and unwieldy.
These were the drawbacks of Thai electoral politics that the 1997 constitution was designed to prevent. Dubbed at the time as the "people's charter," it culminated with Mr Thaksin's rise and rule. His second demise thus spells the final death knell of the 1997 charter.The Democrat party, the main parliamentary opposition throughout the Thaksin years and through the coup and the PPP's election victory last December, has been handed one golden opportunity after another but has failed to capitalise by coming up with an appealing policy platform. As a result, Thai party politics may well revert to the pre-Thaksin era as in the 1980s and 1990s.
Finally, Thailand will now undergo a litmus test to see how much of the Thaksin overhang has affected Thai politics.
If this protracted political crisis emanates from Mr Thaksin and his rule, from his money, corruption and abuses of power, then his departure and the weakening of the political party system should allow for a semblance of normality, a reconciliation of sorts.
Many will watch to see if his myriad opponents, particularly the People's Alliance for Democracy, in Bangkok and other urban centres will tone down their rhetoric or even disband. It would not be surprising if the PAD becomes even more assertive and forceful. Indeed, this crisis and confrontation have become much more than about Mr Thaksin. His opponents may not just want to get rid of him but may also want to stake their own vested interests and claims on power and the pie.
For post-Thaksin Thailand to move forward effectively in the early 21st century, the forces that have put down the Thaksin challenge must be willing to adopt some of his populist agenda, which did win hearts and minds.
Thailand has been brought virtually to a standstill because of the ongoing political polarisation. Now that Mr Thaksin is eliminated from the scene, the way forward appears clear. Mr Thaksin's economic and bureaucratic reforms, income redistribution schemes and policy innovations that boosted Thailand's competitiveness in the global economy should be retained as much as the corruption, cronyism and abuses of power should be dealt with.
It is imperative for the conservative alliance behind his political decapitation to accept that not all of what Mr Thaksin stood for was wrong. Unless his opponents come to terms with what is positive about his legacy, Thailand's crisis is likely to persist.
The writer is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
Wednesday August 13, 2008