Saturday, April 29, 2006

Thailand can't say "Mai pen rai"

Even though Thailand’s PM Thaksin Shinawatra won his second landslide election some years ago, he decided to call a fresh election this month when he still had more than a year to go before the parliamentary term runs out in 2007. He had hope that a fresh (3rd) mandate would put to rest the opposition organised street campaign protesting against his alleged corruption and abuse of power.

Thaksin had sold his family business for a multi-billion dollar fortune but because of existing tax laws, he avoided paying any or much tax. Minimising taxation by clever use of existing tax laws is not illegal, and is similarly exploited elsewhere in countries like Australia too. Some years ago Australians were shocked to learn that the late Kerry Packer, Australia’s richest man, paid very little tax. Packer commented to Australian senators in a parliamentary hearing: "Of course I am minimising my tax. And if anybody in this country doesn't minimise their tax, they want their heads read, because as a government, I can tell you you're not spending it that well that we should be donating extra!"

However, with the Thai opposition cleverly blackening Thaksin's name and insinuating he abused his powers to avoid taxation on the humongous sale, and then appealing to the people’s jingoistic feelings because Thaksin had sold the Thai communication giant conglomerate to a foreign concern (Singapore), they were able to galvanise a hugh and persistent campaign of protest. One of their tactics was to boycott the election.

Predictably Thaksin won the election, and would still have even if the opposition had participated. The opposition has been aware that Thaksin is actually very popular with the rural people, especially those in the NW of the country. His party virtually swept up most of the seats.

But the opposition had once again cleverly exploited Thailand’s election rules, which snookered Thaksin despite another landslide victory. Thai Parliament may only convene if all electoral constituencies have elected their representatives. But no person, even if unopposed, may be elected unless he or she has obtained at least 20% of the votes.

The combined opposition, by boycotting the elections in a very effective way, has ensured some seats didn’t have any representatives. It has been this rule that had prevented Thaksin from forming a new government even though by Westminster rules, he won the election fair and square. But Thai election rules aren’t Westminster rules.

The dilemma for Thailand is that parliament must convene within 30 days of an election, with the deadline of May 2. So there was a standoff.

In an attempt to overcome the impasse Thaksin handed over day-to-day power to a deputy and said he would not be a candidate for the job when parliament does meet. That did not satisfy the opposition, which said any successor would be controlled by Thaksin and insisted on political reforms before they would run in elections. So he resigned with many sceptics swearing he’s still manipulating the political government from behind-the-scenes - which of course he still is, what do you expect?

There was an appeal to the highly respected King to intervene. The constitutional Head of State had only intervened once in 1992 in order to end a bloody confrontation between public protesters and a military government. But now the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej refused to, stating that it’s the job of the Thai courts.

The chief judges of the three main courts decided that all they could do was to rule swiftly on cases involving the inconclusive snap April 2 general election. To forestall Thaksin’s party winning in the 14 seats still unrepresented, opposition parties asked for an immediate injunction to halt any by-elections.

But if the court granted the requested injunction, those seats could not be filled by May 2 and parliament could not convene because the constitution says it must be complete before it can do so. So the constitutional stalemate would continue, which means the Thai Rak Thai (Thaksin's party) would continue as the caretaker government.

The alternative was for the courts to nullify the April 2 poll so that fresh elections may be held. The three parties and Thai Rak Thai said they would take part in a fresh general election. But this would mean that the three main opposition parties would have to drop their insistence on political reforms before they contest elections.

A new election just suits Thaksin fine, because he said a fresh election means rules have changed since his resignation, and he will want to participate. His promised comeback has upset the opposition parties but what the hell can they do if the court rules for another election? Other than of course more protests.

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