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No government

Rodion Ebbighausen / gdFebruary 18, 2014

Since the February 2 elections, Thailand's interim premier has lacked the authority to rule the Southeast Asian country. Four people have recently died in riots. The government is running out of options.

Anti-government protesters gesture towards policemen coming close to their barricade near the Government House in Bangkok February 18, 2014.
Image: Reuters

Government buildings in Thailand's capital Bangkok lie abandoned. For months, they have been besieged by opposition protestors who have forced the government to deal with the day-to-day operations at other facilities.

Although the government of interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has exercised utmost restraint so far, it changed its strategy last Friday, February 14, when it ordered riot police to move against opposition barricades and demonstrators in an attempt to clear the roads leading to ministries and other administrative buildings.

The opposition's reaction was swift. On Monday, February 17, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban called on his followers to oppose the premier, saying: "Yingluck will never have a chance to work in the Government House again." A day later, his supporters laid siege once again to several buildings. The situation then escalated when the riot police took action against the protest camps, leaving at least two people dead and nearly 60 injured.

Elections with no winner

The opposition demands Yingluck's resignation and the establishment of an unelected People's Council to carry out electoral and political reforms.

A police officer aims his weapon as his wounded colleague is transported on a stretcher during clashes with anti-government protesters near the Government House in Bangkok February 18, 2014.
At least two people, including a police officer, were killed as Thai police attempted to reclaim government sitesImage: Reuters

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 time to organize the by-elections.

A stalemate

Until then, Yingluck's interim government is set remain in office, but without many executive powers. In its latest study, the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) points out that "such a government cannot make crucial budget decisions, cannot pass important legislation, and cannot reach international agreements. In other words, it cannot lead, either at home or abroad."

Problems on the home front are particularly evident when it comes to the government's rice subsidies. A law was passed in 2011 guaranteeing farmers a fixed price for their rice produce, thus ensuring greater price stability. Yingluck's critics, however, accuse the premier of wasting the taxpayer's money as this fixed price could be to 50 percent higher than on international markets, depending on the farmers' economic situation.

Yingluck's caretaker government has come under 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, says Michael Winzer, director of the German foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Thailand.

Government loses support

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

The situation is particularly volatile because the farmers had so far always supported the government. The opposition now wants to capitalize on the opportunity, says Winzer. "With money and political speeches they seek to win over the support of disappointed rice farmers."

Anti-government protesters gather near a barbed-wire fence at a government office where Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra had been holding a meeting in Bangkok February 3, 2014.
The opposition accuses the government of wasting taxpayers' moneyImage: Reuters

Moreover, the government's position is further complicated by the investigations being carried out by the country's anti-corruption agency, which is believed to have close links with the opposition. The agency is not only examining whether Yingluck could be prosecuted for the controversial rice subsidies, but also whether to file a case against 308 MPs of the former ruling party.

Foreign policy paralysis

On the foreign policy front, the hands of the transitional government are tied. According to the CSIS study, "it might also be useful to remind Thailand that its neighbors worry about the country being missing in action.

"The Thai foreign minister could not attend a recent ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Myanmar, and Southeast Asian officials are starting to wonder if Thailand will be able to play its key role as the ASEAN interlocutor with China in the months ahead." Moreover, negotiations on a free trade agreement with the European Union have been put on hold indefinitely.