FOR decades Thai politics suffered from a surfeit of pragmatism. Indeed, grimy compromises were dignified as “Thai solutions“. Parties tussled over the perks of office, without letting policies or principles get in the way. When the bickering became too intense, the army would step in—18 times since the advent of constitutional monarchy in 1932. Presiding over a messy but largely functioning polity has been a revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose admirers have no difficulty in reconciling the contradictory ideas that he is both “above politics“ and also the guarantor of stability.
These days, pragmatism has given way to dogmatic intransigence. Huge demonstrations on the streets of Bangkok this week by red-shirted anti-government protesters have produced few hints of compromise. Contributing to this febrile atmosphere is an unspoken fear. King Bhumibol, 82, has been hospitalised for several months. Although he is reportedly in better health now, Thailand needs to start thinking about what will come when his reign ends. That the succession may be rocky only adds to the threat from the political stand-off. Thailand urgently needs to rediscover its lost flair for pragmatism and to rebuild a functioning political system.
As a red-shirted sea flooded Bangkok this week, the government’s supporters played down the tumult. At least it was mostly peaceful, as The Economist went to press, unlike the street battles seen in late 2008 and last April. The stockmarket actually rose. Rather than the 1m demonstrators the organisers had promised, “only“ 100,000-150,000 took part. And they, sneered government supporters, were probably all paid to turn up by the fugitive billionaire and former prime minister they support, Thaksin Shinawatra. The mass blood donations for supplies to splatter on the office of the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was a creepy stunt. Under this reasoning, the calm, resolute Mr Abhisit was right to defy mob rule and the demand for the dissolution of parliament, and wait to unveil an orderly, slow electoral timetable.
This complacent analysis flatters Mr Abhisit (the staunch democrat actually scurried to take refuge in an army barracks). It also understates Thailand’s difficulties in four ways. First, the red shirts do enjoy considerable popular support, and not just in the poor north-east from which so many hail. Mr Thaksin was a high-handed leader convicted of corruption. But his policies, such as affordable health care, helped the poor. “Populism“, sniff his critics. But popularity is what competitive politics is about, and the present government has shamelessly borrowed his policies. Second, whatever Mr Thaksin’s faults, his supporters have a point. He was ousted by a coup in 2006 and the present government was installed, with the backing of the army, by a parliamentary fix, not an election.
Third, the political system has all but broken down, as the government itself tacitly admits when it argues that an election would not solve Thailand’s problems. It may well be right. Democracy works only when the parties that lose an election accept the outcome. And if, as might well happen, Mr Abhisit’s government lost an election to proxies for Mr Thaksin, the same alliance of military and civilian elites that toppled him in 2006 and his allies in 2008 might again reject the popular verdict. Instability would persist.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, the backdrop to this week’s street theatre is the looming royal succession. The king, who has reigned for six decades, is widely revered. His anointed successor, the crown prince, is not. Indeed, he is widely disliked and already shows signs of meddling in politics. Although, in theory, the monarchy inhabits a realm far above the murk of daily government, it has been an important source of legitimacy for the unelected prime minister. The king accepted the coup that overthrew Mr Thaksin in 2006. His senior advisers blessed it. And he never publicly repudiated the yellow-shirted “royalists“, whose revolt in late 2008 led to the downfall of a government led by Mr Thaksin’s proxies.
The fear is not just that the present government relies on tacit royal endorsement for its legitimacy. It is that the king’s death will remove a moderating influence that has kept irreconcilable political differences in check. Heightening fears is the almost total silence on the issue in Thai public life. Harsh laws against lèse-majesté ensure that the future of the monarchy is a matter of private gossip, not public debate. This leader, and our article considering the succession in some detail, could not appear in Thailand. Indeed they will cause great hurt and offence in some quarters there. We regret this. But to discuss Thailand’s future without considering its monarchy is itself to belittle an important national institution.
That discussion needs above all to happen in Thailand—as it did in the period up to 1932. The country’s present political quagmire seems impassable partly because debate over what to do is so stunted. But there is a way out. It would involve an early election, producing a government with popular legitimacy. It would probably also entail a decentralisation of power away from Bangkok so that citizens of regions such as the north-east feel less alienated from their rulers—a sense of alienation that, more than ethnic or religious tensions, underpins the long-running, bloody insurgency in the Muslim-majority southern provinces. And a true “Thai solution“ would also imply a monarchy genuinely above political meddling or manipulation.
This would be in the royal family’s own interest. Republicans lurk in the wings, but a majority still respects the king. The monarchies in Malaysia and Cambodia have painfully lost influence to populist commoners. By the time Nepal’s princelings woke up they were citizens of a republic. Hence, to endure, the monarchy has to win a debate, not suppress one. And it would surely be better for Thailand to discuss all this under a monarch trusted by many to have their interests at heart. Difficult and distressing today, Thailand’s national soul-searching will only grow harder.
(Mar 18th 2010 | From The Economist print edition)