An uncertain calm has descended on Bangkok. This follows more than a week of increasingly violent protests in what has marked another chapter in the long-running saga of the Shinawatra family's rule.
The calm began when embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra instructed the security services to tear down the barb wire and barricades that had, until the 3 October, blocked protesters from descending on the prime minister's office and city police headquarters.
The Prime Minister had little to lose by hitting the release valve and defusing tensions reminiscent of those that unseated her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006 and similarly violent protests in 2010 that were key to bringing her to power.
Indeed, the move allowed the Prime Minister to maintain the moral high ground. This has been coupled with statements that she is willing to resign or dissolve the government and do whatever she can within the constitution to defuse tensions.
Fresh from what he termed a 'partial victory', Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister and the leader of the the Yellow Shirts protest group has called her bluff. After initially stating that that he was prepared to 'die on the battlefield' if he wasn't successful in ridding the country of the 'Thaksin regime', Suthep has shifted his position from one that was odiously undemocratic and unconstitutional to another that is undemocratic but constitutional.
His earlier claim to install an unelected 'People's Council' was muted on the 4 December. Instead, Suthep outlined that he wants to invoke Section 7 of the constitution, a clause that cedes power to the King when no other solution can be found in the text of the constitution. This would likely lead (although it's not explicitly stipulated) to the installation of a royally appointed prime minister.
Such move is unlikely to be supported by the King Rama IX, who never formally intervenes in politics. Even if it were, ceding to the much-revered King would not solve the country's deep political divisions, even if it did stem the current crisis. After all, public protests have been a default mode in the country for decades. Similarly, Suthep's ultimate goal of 'eradicating the Thaksin regime' seems to hold him, above all, as judge and juror of when such a goal would be achieved.
Further, academics and constitutional scholars in Thailand argue that the move would in effect destroy democracy in the country. It would certainly set a dangerous precedent. All the more so as the aging King, 86, will soon cede power to his less revered son.
Yet democracy, in Thailand's unique and divisive form, continues to be challenged by populist policy.
A Transparency International report released the 3 December noted that Thailand had slipped, in terms of corruption perceptions, from 88th place (of 177) in 2012 to 102nd this year. At the top of the list of issues highlighted by Transparency International is the rushing through parliament of the Amnesty Bill that would, if it had passed the Senate, have cleared Thaksin Shinawatra. Equally problematic for the Prime Minister is that she, if a new election is called, will have to explain to her Red Shirt supporters why those who contributed to the bloody crackdown in 2010 would also have been given amnesty by the bill.
During Prime Minister Yingluck's tenure, the country has also been driven into an unnecessary economic malaise.
Her party's vote winning campaign during the last elections to subsidise rice has been exorbitantly expensive. It cost the government USD$12.5 billion in its first year and the cost looks set to increase in 2013. The IMF urged the government to drop the subsidy at the beginning of November. This would of course have huge political ramifications for the current government — its support base, the Red Shirts, are mainly farmers and people from rural areas.
If Prime Minister Yingluck, or her party for that matter, does have to contest new elections, she will likely blame the protests and not her bad policies for the deteriorating economy, a card she has already begun to play when she stated bluntly that growing unrest could lead the 'economy to deteriorate'. While she is certainly right — previous protests significantly hit the tourism and business sectors — it would be, at best, a half-truth.
A further complication for any lasting resolution is that Yellow Shirt leader Suthep Thaugsuban currently has a warrant on his head.
He is charged with insurrection, a crime punishable by death. His one saving grace, aside from his significant political and monetary clout, is that if he was arrested now it could lead to a new wave of protests. As a result, if he were to back down, he would likely be tried, convicted and executed — motive enough to continue the current campaign. A royal pardon could absolve him, but only after a trial and conviction is passed, and for the King it would be picking sides, something he has hitherto been loath to do.
Similarly, an election, despite the issues, would be unlikely to see Suthep win power. Therefore a repeat of the 2006 coup or a continued stalemate appear the most likely scenarios if protests persist.