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Is Thailand heading for another political crisis?

Posted By and on May 29, 2020 @ 06:00

Thailand’s opposition parties are using the government’s pandemic response as an opportunity to further contest Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s legitimacy. While social discontent with the government will continue to grow, the immediate threat to Thailand’s former army commander and coup leader will come from existing alliances and networks.

Thailand has so far managed to contain the spread of Covid-19. The number of confirmed new cases has dwindled to an average of around three a day over the past few weeks, and lockdown restrictions have been eased [1]. Still, Prayut’s government has been widely criticised [2] for its response to the crisis, including its economic stimulus measures and the timing of border closures. Hospitals have been running out [3] of crucial medical supplies, and thousands of Thai citizens have been left stranded [4] overseas by strict fit-to-fly regulations.

One of the most outspoken critics of the government is Thai billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who has used his wealth to distribute medical equipment to regional hospitals and organised online fundraising events [5] for people in need. Thanathorn rose to political stardom in 2018 when he founded the pro-democracy Future Forward Party to challenge Prayut’s military establishment and placed an impressive third in the 2019 national election with 6.2 million votes.

The party was dissolved in February after highly politicised proceedings in the constitutional court found that it had engaged in funding irregularities [6], and its executive members were banned from participating in politics for 10 years.

Despite being disqualified from serving in parliament, Thanathorn has tried to continue building political momentum against the government during the pandemic by re-establishing his former party as both the Move Forward Party [7] and the Thailand Progressive Movement [8].

Other prominent politicians have tried to make the most of this crisis. Pheu Thai Party leader Sudarat Keyuraphan and Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva have publicly criticised [9] the government’s handling of the pandemic. Exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra spoke out against the government, arguing [10] that the lockdown measures had done too much harm to the economy. The most recent accusation by the opposition is that the Prayut government is using the newly introduced [11] economic stimulus package worth 1 trillion baht ($47.5 billion) for blank cheques and to further its political interests.

Criticism of the government is warranted. The Covid-19 pandemic has further highlighted the government’s misplaced economic priorities. Worst-case scenarios predict [12] that more than 10 million Thais, or a quarter of the entire workforce, could lose their jobs in the months ahead if the pandemic continues. Thailand’s low case numbers suggest that it may be able to avoid that fate, but people across the country will still be hit hard by the financial downturn. Thailand’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism and exports. From provincial cities to rural villages, the pandemic has magnified Thailand’s wealth inequality, which was already among the highest in the world [13].

The government’s mishandling of its stimulus packages has left millions ineligible for 5,000 baht ($240) handouts and led to a significant increase in suicides [14] that are directly attributed to the pandemic’s economic fallout. The case [15] of a woman who ended her life after posting a hand-drawn sketch of Prayut on Facebook and discussing hardships under the current ‘heartless’ regime sparked a national outcry.

The government was flooded with complaints about surging electricity bills [16] and has postponed new military procurements [17] after a significant public backlash. Now it has extended the state of emergency [18] to the end of June, a move seen to be designed more to consolidate power and curb protests than to curtail the virus.

Food security is also a major challenge. Thais who have lost their incomes have had to wait in kilometres-long queues [19] to receive donated food from volunteers and temples. In Bangkok, multiple protests [20] have been held in front of the parliament and the Ministry of Finance. Renewed calls for Prayut to resign are likely to grow louder if the government fails to provide adequate support to its people.

Prayut has turned to the country’s 20 wealthiest families, pleading [21] for them to provide economic assistance for the general population. Interestingly, Thanathorn and Thaksin are two of Thailand’s wealthiest [22] people but haven’t been included on the government’s list. Prayut’s willingness to beg the country’s biggest conglomerates to guide government economic policy raises further questions about his ability to lead the country out of an economic crisis.

In the long run, it looks like those who will benefit the most from the political turmoil are Thailand’s main opposition parties. But in the immediate term, those who are most likely to exploit the current climate are members of Prayut’s own ruling coalition.

Thanathorn’s popularity is growing, primarily among younger Thais [23]. The most recent public demonstrations organised by university students against the government have indicated a growing upswell of social discontent against the government.

Prayut’s opponents have been eager to see him ousted from power, but it’s uncertain how successful the opposition will be in achieving its objective.

Thai politics remains highly contested, and this has had an impact on the opposition’s efforts to remove Prayut from power. Political networks at the provincial level and patron–client relationships hinder [24] opportunities for broader, large-scale demonstrations against the government because local politicians engage in party-switching [25] and floor-crossing for personal gain. A no-confidence motion [26] against Prayut earlier in the year failed partly because of disagreements between the main opposition parties.

One of the biggest threats to Prayut’s leadership has been—and will continue to be—internal politicking. Just months after the election, he was compelled to publicly apologise [27]for the coalition’s internal divisions, as politicians criticised him for failing to deliver promised ministerial positions. These tensions haven’t been resolved [28], and they’re likely to resurface in the months ahead, with a cabinet reshuffle expected once the pandemic subsides.

The government’s position is being weakened by other issues. The dissolution of the Future Forward Party, allegations of corrupt military dealings [29], and the concurrent problems [30] of prolonged drought in the northeast, forest fires in Chiang Mai and persistent air pollution across the country have drawn the ire of Thai citizens.

These frustrations have also translated into declining support for and confidence in the monarchy, unprecedented [31] in a country with harsh lèse-majesté laws. The monarchy is a pillar of national stability, which means Prayut’s unpopularity could be viewed as a threat to the institution itself.

Thailand’s confluence of crises is challenging Prayut and his government. The prospects for widespread public demonstrations may be limited now by the pandemic, but Prayut’s prime ministership is looking more fragile than ever.

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URLs in this post:

[1] been eased: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/coronavirus-thailand-begins-easing-lockdown-measures

[2] criticised: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1878375/prayut-explains-govt-handling-of-crisis

[3] running out: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1899780/hospitals-face-hard-choices-amid-pandemic

[4] left stranded: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/thais-left-stranded-overseas-slam-coronavirus-policy-confusion-200416072630213.html

[5] online fundraising events: https://twitter.com/Thanathorn_FWP/status/1256205493653041153?s=20

[6] funding irregularities: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/politics/1862769/ffp-dissolved-executives-banned-for-10-years

[7] Move Forward Party: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/politics/1878785/50-mps-join-move-forward

[8] Thailand Progressive Movement: https://www.facebook.com/ThailandProgressiveMovement/

[9] publicly criticised: https://www.thaienquirer.com/12223/thanatorn-sudarat-and-abhisit-and-their-views-on-the-coronavirus-outbreak-in-thailand/

[10] arguing: https://thethaiger.com/coronavirus/former-thai-pm-thaksin-says-lock-down-was-not-the-way-to-deal-with-covid-19

[11] newly introduced: https://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2020/05/28/prayut-accused-of-favoring-his-cronies-for-1t-baht-loan/

[12] predict: https://www.bangkokpost.com/business/1898955

[13] highest in the world: https://theaseanpost.com/article/growing-gap-between-richest-and-poorest-thais

[14] suicides: https://www.aseantoday.com/2020/05/thailands-covid-19-suicide-crisis-shows-the-cost-of-inequality/

[15] case: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1910624/young-woman-commits-suicide-after-posting-sketch-of-prayut-online

[16] surging electricity bills: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1903040/surging-power-bills-spark-anger

[17] new military procurements: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/coronavirus-thai-army-slashes-budgets-amid-backlash-over-armament-procurement

[18] extended the state of emergency: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1924560/government-extends-emergency-despite-opposition-criticism

[19] queues: https://thethaiger.com/news/chiang-mai/food-queues-run-2-kilometres-around-chiang-mai-moat

[20] protests: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/politics/1878315/hundreds-stage-street-protest-against-prayut-regime

[21] pleading: https://www.thaienquirer.com/11896/opinion-prayut-calling-in-favours-in-approach-to-top-20-richest/

[22] wealthiest: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/2187362/everyone-loves-daddy-forget-thaksin-heres-thai-juntas-new

[23] younger Thais: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/politics/1918912/student-drive-against-govt-to-gain-pace

[24] hinder: https://kyotoreview.org/trendsetters/clans-and-networks-thai-clientelistic-politics-at-the-local-level/

[25] party-switching: https://www.asiasentinel.com/p/cobra-phenomenon-thailand-politics

[26] no-confidence motion: https://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2020/02/28/prayut-survives-no-confidence-vote/

[27] publicly apologise : https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/politics/1705096/prayut-apologises-for-rifts-in-palang-pracharath-party#cxrecs_s

[28] tensions haven’t been resolved: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/politics/1911480/is-the-cure-worse-than-the-cause-

[29] dealings: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/10/world/asia/thai-shooting-gunman.html

[30] concurrent problems: https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/thailand-confronts-its-triple-disaster-in-2020/

[31] unprecedented: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-thailand-monarchy/coronavirus-pandemic-prompts-rare-questioning-of-thai-monarchy-idUSKBN21918F

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