Even for those who are not fans of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister who has been in exile since being convicted of corruption in 2008, the latest moves against his proxy – Yingluck, his sister – seem a little extreme. After her government was overthrown in a coup by the army last May, Ms Yingluck now finds herself banned from participating in politics for five years and faces criminal charges that could lead to a 10-year prison sentence.
It may be that she will be convicted quite correctly over her role in a government scheme that paid billions of dollars at well over the market rate to Thai farmers for rice. It may be that the allegations of corruption and conflict of interest that have long dogged her brother are well-founded too. And it may be fair to say that the Thaksin faction’s unabashed populism has distorted the democratic process in Thailand.
The problem is that Mr Thaksin’s parties (there’s a reason I use the plural) keep winning elections – every time they’ve been held since 2001. The word “parties” is appropriate as the courts have developed the habit of ordering the dissolution of whatever is his current vehicle. The practice started with Thai Rak Thai in 2007. Each time this happens, supposedly “new” parties have to be created for pro-Thaksin supporters.
Just to return to that assessment of the moves against the Shinawatra brand, it may also be true, as The Economist put it last year, that “the power elite in Thailand does not accept the fundamental nature of democracy. They believe that the rule of an ‘accomplished’ few is preferable to the judgments of the people.”
But while many in Thailand may be willing to wait long enough to see if Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government can come up with a new constitution acceptable to all parties, any coup-sponsored administration cannot be legitimate for long. It is fair to say that two things are certain: the future includes elections, and whatever Mr Thaksin’s party is called when they are held, it will do well. According to early indications, the panel drafting the constitution is well aware of Mr Thaksin’s popularity and is busy coming up with ways to limit a pro-Thaksin result at the polls.
Even so, all of this could be overtaken by one event: the passing of the king. Bhumibol Adulyadej has been on the throne since 1946. He is undoubtedly revered and loved by his people. He is seen as a dhammaraja, a monarch who rules according to Buddhist principles and whose acts demonstrate his superior virtue. And he is also viewed as an heir to the tradition of the devarajas, the Hindu god-kings of the ancient Khmer Angkor kingdom. But he is old and frail and it is not clear if crown prince Vajiralongkorn will be regarded in the same way.
To inherit either mantle – dhammaraja or heir to the devarajas tradition – would be a challenge for any successor. It is often forgotten that King Bhumibol acquired this status over many decades. In the early years of his reign he had a purely ceremonial role. Over time, the monarchy became arguably the strongest institution in Thailand but that does not mean that every monarch automatically has the sort of power and influence that King Bhumibol has enjoyed. Given that no one knows how much longer King Bhumibol has, the prospect of a weaker successor and what that means for Thailand’s always turbulent politics is probably of greater urgency than the current government’s plans.
Under one scenario, however, it might just be what could return Thailand to the path of a stable democracy. The crown prince has a history of being on friendly terms with Mr Thaksin, the very person whom the “power elite” of the old establishment, courtiers and powerful business interests loathe so much. The two are known to have met in Germany when Mr Thaksin was still, as he is now, a wanted man in Thailand around four years ago. In the past, Mr Thaksin has said that when the crown prince takes the throne, it will be a “shining” age for the country. Mr Thaksin has also made it consistently clear that he is keen to return to public life.
Predictably, he has said he was not necessarily keen to seek power but it is obvious that a new king and a resurgent Thaksin could arrive at an attractive deal. This would be as follows: Mr Thaksin gets to come back with a royal pardon to keep him from jail and the move earns the new king the approval of the masses. This would be a symbiotic relationship. The new king’s new prime minister would find it greatly in his interest to shore up and build support for his new ally. So long as Mr Thaksin would have the monarch’s official blessing, the old elite would be unable to attack him from a “royalist” position. The old elite, which is none too keen on the crown prince, would be sidelined.
Of course, such a deal would require some accommodation with the armed forces. Their status and share of the economic pie would have to be guaranteed. But it could, at least theoretically be the beginning of a new era for Thailand: one in which democracy finally beds down and the days of coups and curfews are past.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia