Thursday, June 14, 2012

You may win all the battles but still lose the war

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is supposed to run both the government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party. But she seems to try to portray the image of being “above politics” why the country is being plagued by one political crisis after another. And in every one of the showdowns, her party is directly involved.

She said she had nothing to do with the “reconciliation” bill which created a storm in Parliament when opposition Democrat MPs clashed with the ruling Pheu Thai members – all the way to House Speaker Somsak Kiatsuranond. The premier was conveniently absent from the violent confrontations in the House. She was busy with flood prevention inspections and activities totally unrelated to the crisis of the day.

Then came the new “constitutional crisis” in which the Constitutional Court asked the House to put on hold the planned third and final reading of the constitutional amendment bill. Her ruling party put up a strong resistance, arguing that the court had no authority to accept any appeal for an interpretation of the propriety of the proposed charter changes. The court insisted on its constitutional authority in this regard. Both sides claim that their legal interpretation was the right one.

Premier Yingluck was again busy with touring provinces that might be threatened with floods again this year. Her deliberate absence from the charter crisis was conspicuous.

She has been trying to govern without managing the country’s politics, hoping to distance herself from any possible fallout from her brother Thaksin Shinawatra’s remote-control manipulation.

At one point, it might have seemed that she could have feigned political innocence but things didn’t go as planned. Thaksin thought he could come home for his birthday in July when he was speaking to the red-shirts from Laos.

He thought he had struck a compromise with the “elite.” The “reconciliation bill” that was submitted by Gen Sonthi Bunyaratakalin, the 2006 coup leader turned political ally, couldn’t be rammed through as planned despite the overwhelming majority in the House. It proved more divisive than had been anticipated.

Then came the thunderbolt from the Constitutional Court which ordered the House to suspend the voting on the third and final reading of the charter amendments. This, too, was supposed to help propel Thaksin’s return as a free man with the hope of getting the Bt46 billion frozen assets retrieved. But the legal challenge posed a major obstacle despite lurking doubts over the court’s authority to set up a roadblock on the Parliament’s right to proceed with the constitutional changes.

Pheu Thai, of course, could just ignore the court’s “hold-it” order since it could easily outvote the opposition and produce up some convincing arguments to get the bill approved so that elections could be held nationwide to name a panel to draw up a new constitution.

But the risk of splitting the country further is simply too high. Thaksin may win all the legal battles but he could still lose the real war which at least requires a certain degree of a national reconciliation.

There are also the complications within the Pheu Thai Party and the red-shirt movement that could prove disastrous for Thaksin in the short term. The ruling party is far from unanimous in how to handle the reconciliation and constitutional amendment bills. Certain factions among the red shirts have expressed clear dissatisfaction with Thaksin’s clear shift in stand. He is seen by these red-shirt members as having betrayed their grass-roots cause by cozying up to the “elite” for his only safe return to the country and to resume power.

This is perhaps the most worrisome issue for Thaksin. His compromise with his foes required him to disown the red movement. But he can “leave the boat to get on a car” to reach his destination – as he said in his controversial phone-in last month – only at his own peril.

The battles over the two bills have plunged the country into a new crisis. With House Speaker Somsak postponing the two key bills to the next House session, he is simply buying more time. Thaksin may beat a retreat to regroup but Yingluck can’t afford to “play it safe” without putting the country on a collision course once again. She has to act – and soon -- to defuse this huge time-bomb which continues to tick even during this brief “ceasefire.”

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