Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has taken the plunge and dissolved parliament for an early election (set tentatively for 2 February), in a bid to end the unrest that has plagued Bangkok for the last month.

It’s an attempt to trump the announcement by the opposition Democrat Party that its members would all resign their seats, creating a giant by-election. But it’s not at all clear that the increasingly ill-named Democrats are interested in electoral contests.

In 2006, when Yingluck’s brother Thaksin was prime minister, he tried the same move to counter a wave of demonstrations. But the Democrats and other opposition parties boycotted the election and the protests continued. The Constitutional Court later invalidated the election, but before it could be held again the military seized power.

This time, the anti-democratic rhetoric from the opposition seems even more explicit. When one side gives up on democracy, it’s hard to see how elections can solve anything. Thai political scientist Pavin Chachavalpongpun, quoted by Reuters yesterday, put it well: “This is only a short-term solution because there is no guarantee that the Democrats will come back and play by the rules.”

Of course, there are differences from 2006. Thaksin’s government was clearly guilty of some shady dealings; the allegations against Yingluck seem mild in comparison. And Yingluck’s parliamentary majority is much harder to impeach, since it was won in an election run by her opponents.

Most critically of all, perhaps, King Bhumibol is seven years older and the royalist establishment is that much less confident and more preoccupied with the succession. The 2006 coup was masterminded by the palace and carried out cleanly and relatively painlessly, allowing a certain amount of reconciliation – at least for a while.

Thailand may not be so lucky this time. Just the simple fact that it has happened before will put Yingluck and her supporters on their guard, and it’s unlikely that they will submit quietly if one of the generals decides to move.

The fundamental problem is that the Democrats cannot accept the legitimacy of people’s decision to vote for Thaksin and his sister. As the BBC’s Jonathan Head sums up:

The core of the opposition’s grievances is the belief that the five consecutive election victories by the governing party were “bought”, either by bribes, or through unsustainable, populist policies. But all the data shows clear and strong support in Thailand’s north and north-east for the government, and that all the recent election results broadly reflected the will of the majority.

After all, if unsustainable policies render a government illegitimate, then precious few would be left standing.

For further comment on how Thai politics has got to this point, don’t miss a blog post last week from Thai-based crime writer Christopher Moore. (Hat tip to Andrew Nette for bringing it to my attention.) His argument is that we are seeing the results of the breakdown of the old habits of deference, or kreng jai, as people discovered the possibilities of democracy:

Once the general population of voters understood that they had power in their vote, they started to wonder about the role of kreng jai in a world of newly empowered voters. This modern, new power to elect officials promised to secure for them a better life than the one they had traditionally received under a pure kreng jai system. What happened next? Pretty much what you’d expect – people’s previously unshaken belief in the old faith that had driven the political process was replaced by doubt and skepticism.

I probably wouldn’t be as uncritical of Thaksin as Moore is, but I think he’s definitely on to something. Whatever the causes, however, Thais desperately need to find a way to settle their differences peacefully.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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