Thailand’s anti-government protesters appeared to win a big victory early Monday as beleaguered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced she will dissolve the lower House of Parliament and call a national election. The premier seemed to cave minutes before the official start of a massive rally in front of her Government House office by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. The move may signal the end of the Yingluck administration, but it also heralds more turbulence—perhaps even violence—ahead in the Southeast Asian nation’s ongoing power struggle.
“In the short term we will see more mayhem in Bangkok,” political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak tells The Daily Beast. “No democratic exit; only more force and intimidation to take over the government.”
Yingluck's government has proposed February 2 as the date for new elections following the premier's decision to dissolve Parliament. The Election Commission, which must approve the date, will discuss the proposal with the government over the next several days.
Yingluck says her administration will remain in power as a caretaker government. According to the Thai constitution, she has 45 to 60 days to submit a plan for new elections. The problem with that is that protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, head of the People’s Democratic Reform Council, wants Yingluck gone now. He also wants to “eradicate Thaksinism”—a reference to exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who many believe continues to run the government nominally headed by his younger sister.
“I don’t see this as a cave-in at all, because that’s not what Suthep wants,” says Bangkok Post columnist Voranai Vanijaka. “It’s a good strategy by Yingluck, because she looks good democratically and she looks like she’s willing to compromise. It’s a good counterattack.”
Anti-government protesters have staged demonstrations almost nonstop over the past two weeks or so, pausing only to observe the 86th birthday of the nation’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Protests have been concentrated largely in Bangkok, although there have been demonstrations in other provinces as well. Pro-government Thais have also been on the streets, including in Bangkok, but withdrew at the behest of their leaders, who feared violent clashes with Suthep’s group.
Political analyst Panitan Wattanayagorn sees the dissolution as the way to a negotiated settlement. “She opened a new door to negotiate, and the tension is now more manageable than just a few hours ago,” says the Chulalongkorn University professor.
But things here may have gotten too complicated. Typically, negotiations would be between Pheu Thai and the main opposition party, the Democrats, who are led by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. But Suthep is effectively a third political stakeholder—and he seems to be ruling out any caretaker role for Yingluck.
For Suthep, Yingluck’s decision to hold a new election is not that big a win, since he is aware that the Thaksins’ Pheu Thai party is likely to win again—returning the status quo.
“What the anti-government protesters want is to set up the government and take over,” says Thitinan. “They’ve lost faith in the electoral system because they have lost every election to Thaksin’s party machine. In order for them to become the government they have to do it in this way, in the street.”
Thailand’s constitution also calls for the appointment of an interim government in cases where the sitting administration stands down. But can all parties agree on such an interim body, and a temporary prime minister?
“It will be tricky,” concedes Panitan. “If they don’t do that there could be violence in the streets.” He suggests that some “outside” groups—perhaps the military—might apply pressure to the negotiators.
The military staked out a neutral position from the start of the current unrest. The assumption, however, is that their sympathies lie with the protesters—one reason Yingluck has had fewer options than she might have liked. The Army was behind the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin.
The Democrats also could make matters more difficult by boycotting any new election. “It would be unsurprising if the Democrat Party decides not to join the election,” says Thitinan, noting that Abhisit and his lieutenants know they are unlikely to prevail. Suthep has asked that the king appoint a prime minister, but if the monarch’s birthday speech is any indication, he wants the politicians, the people, to sort out the impasse.
Today’s mass demonstrations in Bangkok continue. Jubilant crowds clearly want the ultimate prize: Yingluck’s resignation—if not her disappearance from the political scene. With the prime minister forced to call new elections, and negotiations seeming as at best problematical, there’s concern that her own supporters will join Suthep’s hordes in the streets.
“[Anti-government protesters’] ongoing efforts in staging their coup are going to bring more turmoil for Thailand going forward,” says Thitinan.