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On the defensive

Rodion Ebbighausen / gd
February 27, 2014

As Thailand's embattled prime minister faces negligence charges which could lead to her impeachment, the leader of the anti-government protests says he is willing to discuss an end to the months-long political crisis.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra leaves Army Club where she held a cabinet meeting in Bangkok December 10, 2013.
Image: Reuters

As pressure mounts on several fronts, Thailand's premier Yingluck Shinawatra finds herself on the defensive and fighting for her political survival. On February 27, the politician - who has been touring her native province of Chiang Mai - skipped an anti-corruption panel hearing into a botched rice subsidy scheme. Instead, the caretaker PM assigned her lawyers to represent her.

If found guilty by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) Yingluck faces an impeachment vote in the upper house and a possible five-year ban from politics, as well as potential imprisonment by the courts on criminal charges. This would bring the opposition one step closer to its goal of overthrowing the government.

A controversial scheme

The rice subsidy scheme, originally aimed at securing the political support of people in rural areas, has now become a potential threat to the administration. The law enabling the subsidies was passed in 2011. It guaranteed farmers a fixed price for their rice produce, thus ensuring greater price stability. Yingluck's critics, however, accuse the premier of wasting taxpayers' money, as the money promised to farmers is at times up to 50 percent more than rice prices on international markets.

Yingluck's caretaker government has received additional pressure recently as it's no longer allowed to pay off the farmers. The nation's constitution forbids a transitional government from making decisions which could become a burden for the following government, explains Michael Winzer, director of the German foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Thailand.

"The farmers depend on these payments, as they have already sold their entire harvest to the government weeks ago," Winzer told DW. On Monday, February 17, farmers marched in front of government buildings to show their discontent with the government.

The current situation is particularly volatile, according to Winzer, because farmers traditionally supported the government. And now the opposition wants to capitalize on the opportunity, using "money and political speeches to win over the support of disappointed rice farmers."

Suthep wants to talk

Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said on February 27 that he was willing to discuss with the prime minister on ending the country's political deadlock, as long as talks were one-on-one and televised live.

Thai protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (L) receives donations from supporters during a rally in Bangkok on January 19, 2014.
Protest leader Suthep says he wants to discuss an end to the crisisImage: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

According to media reports from Chiang Mai, Yingluck reacted by saying that talks needed a framework, but that it remained unclear what they would entail. "Many parties need to be involved in the negotiations as I alone cannot speak on behalf of all Thai people," she was quoted as saying.

The opposition's change in strategy doesn't mean that they have set aside their main demand that Yingluck resign and be banned from politics. Protesters want her government to be replaced by a non-elected "people's council" to oversee reforms before any future vote.

Delaying tactics

Faced with this situation, Yingluck dissolved the country's parliament in December and announced elections, which took place in early February. But the vote failed to resolve the conflict, as the opposition managed to disrupt voting in about eleven percent of the polling stations.

Furthermore, by-elections must be held as the nation's electoral system mandates compulsory voting of all eligible voters and are not enough elected parliamentarians to form the next government. The Election Commission announced in early February that it would need 3 to 6 months to organize by-elections - a delay which fits well with the opposition, according to observers.

Clashes in the streets of Bangkok have led to over 20 deaths and over 700 cases of people being injured. By blocking government buildings, protesters also keep up the pressure and provide time for the opposition to push state institutions such as the judiciary to take a stance against the Yingluck-led government.

'The prototype for a coup'

Marc Saxer, analyst at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Bangkok, believes that a coup will be carried out by courts and independent commissions. "What we are experiencing in Thailand is the prototype for a coup in the 21st century," Saxer told DW.

Anti-government protesters march with a giant Thai national flag at the shopping district in central of Bangkok January 13, 2014. Thousands of anti-government protesters began a blockade at major intersections in Bangkok on Monday as they sought to cripple Thailand's capital, stepping up pressure on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign. REUTERS/Nir Elias (THAILAND - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS)
Saxer: "What we are experiencing in Thailand is the prototype for a coup in the 21st century"Image: Reuters

The opposition dominates institutions such as the nation's Constitutional Court, Anti-Corruption Authority, Election Commission, Human Rights Commission and the Thai Federal Court. They, in turn, are attempting to criminalize the current government in an effort to block any constitutional way out of the political crisis.

"The opposition is trying to prevent the normal democratic process until the point is reached where there is no other way out of the stalemate than to set up an unelected People's Council, as demanded by the opposition." In the end, Saxer says, "it will appear as if it was all legal."

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