Banned Thai Politicians Return

Thailand is teetering on the brink of a meltdown. The return of banned politicians will aid Yingluck Shinawatra.

Over the past year, since Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected in July 2011, the balance of power has shifted precariously, back and forth, between the Thaksin/Red Shirt/ Puea Thai forces and the establishment pro-royalist forces, allied with the army.

As Asia Times has written in several comprehensive pieces, the army, which cast serious dishonor upon itself with the killings in the streets of Bangkok in the spring of 2010, restored some of its positive image through effective relief work during the floods of 2010, at a time when the Yingluck government seemed to be flailing in handling the crisis. The army further strengthened its hand by, in recent months, removing some senior officers loyal to Thaksin and solidifying the top corps with staunchly royalist officers who are loyal to the army chief of staff. Yingluck’s government has in many ways acceded to the establishment, by doing nothing to stop the procession of lèse-majesté cases, and by publicly wooing senior Privy Council leaders as well as the military. (Most recently, the editor of Prachatai received a suspended sentence for the absurd crime of not deleting quickly enough anti-monarchical sentiments from the website.)

Yet at the same time, Thaksin and Yingluck have strengthened their own bases. Thaksin has done so by continuing to remain relevant to the Thai policy debate, traveling to neighboring nations and holding enormous rallies to show his continuing appeal. He has cultivated his own military allies, and reaffirmed his close ties with important regional leaders like Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen.

Now, Puea Thai has even more weapons at their disposal. The return last week of over one hundred pro-Thaksin politicians from five year bans from politics after the 2006 coup returns some of the most capable, politically savvy, and popular politicians to the Puea Thai fold. This will undoubtedly strengthen Yingluck’s cabinet, help reduce the divides in the party – there have been intra-party contests over recent ridings – and bring in even more assets to the party, since several of the returning politicians are highly skilled fundraisers.

Yet in this group there are also some of the most broadly respected, and potentially conciliatory men and women in Thai politics – including some who originally joined with Thaksin for progressive, even noble aims, seeing him as the man to shake up the political system, bring voices to a broader range of Thais, and push forward the democratic reforms that these men and women had fought for during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Thaksin didn’t exactly accomplish all those goals, but several of these politicians could still play critical roles in averting a complete political meltdown in Thailand, which looks increasingly likely.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @JoshKurlantzick