A day after Thailand's Constitutional Court banned leaders of the three leading parties in the ruling coalition, Thais were expressing relief that their long crisis appeared over, but many were left wondering who is in charge. The confusion was understandable. By banning Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from politics for five years, the court stripped him of his job. Deputy Prime Minister Chaowarat Chandeerakul is acting as premier but is widely seen as a stopgap figure. And all the while the prospect of more unrest loomed as the country's biggest party regrouped under a new name, setting up a collision with the alliance that helped bring down the government.
Chaowarat survived the court-driven purge because he is not an executive member of Somchai's People Power Party (PPP). On Wednesday Thailand's cabinet confirmed him as acting P.M. and foreign minister, but he is not considered a powerful figure. Most Thais are still looking to coalition parties Chart Thai, Machima Thipataya and the PPP to cobble together a successor government, largely because those parties remain dominant. They still hold 245 seats in Parliament's 480-seat lower house, with the PPP alone owning 219. The wider six-party coalition in the government still holds 283 seats. So while the parties may have lost their leaders to disqualification, they are still in the majority.
In the temporary vacuum, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the group whose occupation of Bangkok's two leading airports helped drive Somchai from office, is acting as if it is in charge. As coalition members dithered over who should be the next permanent prime minister, the PAD warned that it would take to the streets again if politicians chose someone it deems unacceptable. Specifically, says PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul, no politician who is a "proxy" for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra will be tolerated. "The PAD will return if another proxy government is formed," he said at a press conference Wednesday. That disqualifies virtually anyone from the PPP, the party widely seen as loyal to Thaksin, who was deposed in a bloodless coup in 2006.
It probably also leaves out Puea Thai, the party set up by PPP cadres even before the court announced its decision. The swiftness with which the party was established is typical of Thailand's politics, where parties are dissolved and established with dizzying regularity—often after a pre-existing party has been banned. The creation of Puea Thai looks to be a PPP tactic to keep its grip on power. The new party is due to select its leader and executive board Sunday, a day before the lower house is expected to nominate a new prime minister.
In the meantime, Chaowarat is minding the store, although apparently not doing much with the merchandise. "Nobody's in any position to do much of anything at this point," says a business consultant who supported the PAD but now says they went too far. He asked not to be named because of his relationships with government officials. "The PPP-government option was a disaster; the PAD doesn't really have a good plan. We need a third way."
For a growing number of observers and ordinary Thais, that third way may be the Democrat Party, a major player in Thai politics since 1945 that has stood on the sidelines through much of the recent tumult. The party headed the government twice in recent times, with its former leader, Chuan Leekpai, serving as prime minister in 1992-95 and 1997-2001. Its current boss, Abhisit Vejjajiva, is being touted by some as the country's next leader. The telegenic, urbane and England-born young pol—he's 44—has long been expected to rise to the top of Thailand's political heap.
The Democrat Party conceivably could try to form a coalition government of its own. With more than 160 seats in the House, the party has been in the opposition to the PPP, after serving in a similar role to Thaksin's now defunct Thai Rak Thai Party. Long a center-right royalist group, the Democrat Party could well rally Thais as well as garner the PAD's approval. After all, the party remains pro-monarchy, supported the military during the coup that toppled Thaksin, is socially conservative and is strong in Bangkok and southern Thailand. Further, some of its leaders are also prominent members of the PAD. Bangkok's The Nation newspaper reports, however, that Democrat Party members met to discuss the possibility of forming a government and concluded they did not have the political strength to pull it off.
For now, the caretaker administration limps on, getting the rudiments of governance done, as an array of politicians and parties circle each other, trying to find a way forward under the watchful—and suspicious—eye of the PAD. Reports suggest that not a few politicians, including from the PPP, have floated the idea of dissolving Parliament and calling fresh elections. Acting Prime Minister Chaowarat is said to have vetoed any such action. Considering his predecessor lasted a mere 77 days, it could well be one of the few decisions he gets to take before Thailand's political landscape shifts yet again. And if Puea Thai runs afoul of the PAD, flights at Suvarnabhumi Airport, which started up again Wednesday, may once more be grounded.