Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Thailand faces constitutional crisis

Thailand has entered the deepest political crisis since the coup of September 2006. First, Monday saw a major constitutional court ruling. Tuesday came a second high court ruling. For reasons outlined below, either of these two decisions could spell the end of the government. Also on Tuesday, Thaksin, the billionaire who stands behind the PPP led government went on trial for corruption. It seems to me that Thaksin's own predicament is likely to have a substantial bearing on how the government chooses to respond to the unfolding crisis.

First, a brief overview of the situation, compiled from articles published today in the The Nation and the Bangkok Post.

Government violated Constitution. The Nation reported:

The Cabinet was stunned by yesterday's Constit-ution Court ruling on the status of the May 22 Thai-Cambodian communique on Preah Vihear Temple.

The ruling could lead to a mass resignation of Cabinet members if impeachment proceedings are initiated in the Senate against the entire Cabinet for violating the Constitution's Article 190.

Article 190 requires the government to seek Parliament's approval before signing a treaty.

The court ruled that a communique -- in which the Thai foreign minister supported Cambodia's appeal to UNESCO that Preah Vihear temple be granted UNESCO world heritage status -- constituted a kind of international treaty. According to the court, PM's Samak's cabinet failed in its constitutional obligation to consult parliament.

Senate impeachment to begin soon. The Nation reports that senators were "expected to being a legal procedure to impeach the entire cabinet." Should the "National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC) accepted such a petition [to impeach] from senators, the Cabinet would be required to suspend its duties. . ." (Presumably, this creates a problem when you have a country to run.) After considering the case, the NCCC would refer the matter back to the Senate. The procedure calls for the NCCC to refer the matter back to the Senate if it agrees there are grounds for the Cabinet to be impeached. "Support from a minimum three-fifths of the upper House is required to impeach the Cabinet."

Incidentally, the Prime Minister wishes that all the blame be dumped on his foreign minister:
"Noppadon will get the jackpot. He will be held liable. Other Cabinet members should be spared, otherwise there will be nobody left to run the country," the PM was quoted by the source as saying.
Foreign Minister Nappadon was one who "signed the communique with his Cambodian counterpart for Cambodia's bid to have the Preah Vihear Temple listed as a World Heritage site."

Anyway, there is some debate -- among Senators too -- about whether or not the whole entire cabinet should be impeached.

Ruling PPP Party faces likely dissolution. The Bangkok Post reports "The Supreme Court on Tuesday backed an Election Commission ruling that influential ex-House speaker Yongyuth Tiyapairat committed fraud during campaign for the Dec 23 election. The verdict expels him from parliament and threatens the ruling People Power party with imminent dissolution." The article continues:

After the verdict, PPP members began arguing whether to dissolve the House and call snap elections, a path reportedly favoured by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and several coalition party leaders. . . .

The Supreme Court's Electoral Fraud Division ruled that Mr Yongyuth had attempted to bribe influential kamnan to back him and his PPP candidates in Chiang Rai.
What are Prime Minister Samak's options?
Thai media reported on Tuesday that Premier Samak met on Monday with key coalition partners Chart Thai leader Banharn Silpa-archa, Pracharaj leader Sanoh Thienthong, Puea Pandin leader Suwit Khunkitti, and Matchimathipataya leader Anongwan Thepsuthin.

They reportedly agreed that Mr Samak should dissolve parliament if Mr Yongyuth was found guilty.

In addition to PPP, four of the five coalition parties also face dissolution over various cases wending their way through the independent organisations and the courts: Chart Thai, Matchimathipataya and Puea Pandin.

The premier could also choose to try to ride out the crisis with a major cabinet reshuffle, replacing a number of lightning rod ministers and attempting to focus on the economy.

Opposition Party to coax coalition of besieged PPP led government to defect to form a coalition. This move by the opposition comes in response to the Supreme Court's decision to back the Election Commission regarding its election fraud charge against Yongyuth Tiyaphairat:
Thavorn Sen-niem, deputy secretary-general of the Democrat Party, said the coalition government now lacked legitimacy to continue to run the country. . . .

Thavorn suggested that other coalition partners should consider forming a new government, presumably with the Democrats as a core leader.

He said the People Power Party, which has 233 MPs, might lose 10 MPs if it were to be dissolved in connection with Yongyuth's election violation.

"If other parties - except the People Power Party - think about the possibility of forming a new coalition government, there would be nothing wrong about it," he said.

Thavorn said the prime minister must not dissolve Parliament as a way out because the MPs from other parties have committed nothing wrong.

"It is not right to use Bt3 billion to Bt4 billion of public money to hold the general election in order to resolve the internal problems of the People Power Party or some Cabinet members from this party," he added.

Thavorn said it would be rather difficult to form a new coalition government, but there is a possibility that it might happen.

In 1997, General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, then prime minister, resigned from office due to his failure to tackle the baht crisis. He did not dissolve Parliament and allowed the Democrats to form a new coalition government instead.

Thavorn said he has not held talks with other coalition partners but is simply trying to know their opinions.

It will take at least seven months in the legal process to dissolve the People Power Party, compared to nine months for the Thai Rak Thai Party.

Thaksin's trial begins. Al Jazeera reports:

Thaksin did not attend the opening of the trial on Tuesday, the first in a number of cases against him and his aides.

He faces corruption charges for allegedly using his influence to help his wife, Pojaman, purchase coveted public land in Bangkok at a reduced price.

If convicted, Thaksin and his wife could face more than ten years in prison, with no prospects for appeal.

It looks as if Thailand is headed toward a constitutional crisis. It's probably in the best interest of the governing coalition to take the initiative. I expect they will call an election shortly.

An alternative to this scenario might see HM the King appointing a national unity government. We can be sure former PM Thaksin is busy behind the scenes trying to make sure that doesn't happen. Why? Because the former Prime Minister is on trial. The billionaire Thai leader surely wants his friends power at a time while his future is being decided. Perhaps a snap election is the best way to keep his close allies in high places.

Thaksin may have few friends in the palace, but should another election be called, his constituency of rural supporters in the populous North and Northeast of Thailand would likely return his anointed successors to power.

Thaksin may have already decided that is a bet worth making.

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