If you are trying to get rid of the legitimately elected government of your country, it helps to have the Constitutional Court, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and the Election Commission on your side.
And Thailand’s Constitutional Court has come through for the opposition once again: it has just ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and nine of her cabinet ministers for improperly removing a civil servant from office.
This is the latest move in an eight-year campaign by the old political establishment and its middle-class supporters in Bangkok to destroy a populist party, twice renamed and currently called Pheu Thai, that has won every election since 2001.
The street protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) that have intermittently paralysed Bangkok since last November get the headlines, but the courts remain an indispensable weapon too.
The civil servant who lost his post, Thawil Pliensri, was the head of the National Security Council. He was appointed by a previous government that was deeply hostile to Yingluck’s party, and he was publicly critical of her government. So after winning the 2011 election she moved him to a different post and put in a national security head of her own choice.
The prime minister actually replaced Thawil with a general called Paradorn Pattanatabut, who is not a relation – but his promotion allowed a distant relative of hers, also a general, to move up one rung in the hierarchy. It didn’t give him political power or more money, but any old accusation will do if the court works for the opposition. The Constitutional Court found Yingluck guilty of nepotism and ordered her to step down.
Meanwhile the PDRC’s street protests continue, and Suthep Thaugsuban, the movement’s leader, is brutally frank about their objective: “From a Western point of view, ‘democracy’ is an elected government serving as the people’s representative,” he said. “Unfortunately, elections in Thailand do not represent people’s (real) choices because their votes are bought.”
What he means is that the parties led by Yingluck, and earlier by her exiled brother Thaksin Shinawatra, have “bribed” the poor, and peasant farmers in particular, with policies like a universal health-care system, microcredit development funds for villages, price supports for rice and low-interest loans for farmers.
In other countries, such policies are seen as normal and legitimate political tools in the competition for votes. They have outraged the prosperous middle-class in Bangkok and the south, who were accustomed to having the government devote most of its time and money to their own needs, but they have delivered five election victories in a row for the Pheu Thai party and its predecessors in a country where the majority of voters are still poor farmers.
The PDRC’s solution is to prevent any more elections until an unelected People’s Council, made up of “good people” chosen by the elite institutions that support the opposition, can “reform” the political system by excluding voters who are poorly educated or simply poor. Then the conservative opposition parties would finally be able to win elections.
Relying on their allies in the judiciary and the various official commissions to prevent elections or set their results aside has served the right-wing parties well since the original military coup that overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. In the last four months, however, they have returned to the streets in Bangkok, and their next step may be to ask the army for another coup.
That is the only thing that could give them their cherished “People’s Council” and the disenfranchisement of a substantial part of the electorate. All their street demonstrations and legal obstructionism are ultimately intended to create a political paralysis that will provide the pretext for such a coup, and they are now probably quite close to achieving that goal.
The only little problem is that a whole generation of Thais has now grown up to expect that they will have a political voice in the government of their country. Another coup, in these circumstances, could well be the trigger for civil war.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.