Agam's Gecko
Thursday, April 06, 2006

oday is a national holiday in Thailand, Chakri Day. The occasion commemorates the founding of the Chakri Dynasty (of which HM Bhumiphol Adulyadej is the ninth monarch) back in 1782. On this date in that year, King Rama the First ascended the throne upon the death of King Taksin (who history tells us became rather crazy on the throne, was declared insane, removed by coup d'etat, and executed). King Rama I then moved the capital of the Kingdom to its present location on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. King Taksin is still revered by Chinese-Thais, as he was half Chinese and half Thai. In the 1980's the Thai government bestowed an honourific title, making him King Taksin the Great.

So on this Chakri Day holiday, I'm thinking what a strange week it's been -- and it's only Thursday.

On Monday, election returns were still preliminary but the striking thing was the success of the "vote for nobody" campaign. The strongest showing for nobody came, as predicted, in Bangkok and the deep south. In Bangkok's 36 constituencies, PM Taksin's Thai Rak Thai candidates (with practically no human opponents) won them all. But in 28 of the 36, "vote for nobody" had more votes than the TRT candidates. Overall in the city, "vote for nobody" gained slightly over 50% of ballots cast. It was reported that the PM was shocked at the strength of the protest vote, and late in the day it was announced that the PM would have a live interview on tv that evening. Would he resign, or wouldn't he?

I was quite surprised by his attitude in the interview, which was a real softball affair. He had a sheaf of papers from which he read out figures and percentages comparing the interim results with the past election, making strained-sounding arguments that the result wasn't all that bad for him, and he still had the confidence of the people. He dropped hints that his party had other talented people who could assume leadership, but the gist of it was that he would ride it out and remain in office.

On Tuesday, as more results came in from the Election Commission, it was apparent that his facts and figures the previous night had been a bit optimistic. His party was running at slightly over 50% nationwide (and that's not including spoiled ballots as "no" votes, of which there were many more than usual, with people checking the "no vote" box and then writing an anti-Taksin slogan as well). He had promised to resign if he got less than 50%. In the afternoon, it was announced that he would have an audience with HM the King, at the seaside palace in Hua Hin.

That evening, the Thai TV Pool carried his address to the nation. He apologised to his supporters, and reminded everyone that unity is more important than winning. In two months time, the world will be coming here to help celebrate the 60th anniversary of the world's longest reigning monarch. And so, he would not accept nomination as the next Prime Minister, but he would continue as caretaker PM until the next parliament is convened, and a government formed.

So what did the election accomplish? Taksin was the sole issue, before and after voting day. We had a legitimate parliament elected just one year ago, and now we have a fundamentally illegitimate parliament which can't even convene until around 35 seats hold another ballot. These are districts where the winner didn't make the required 20% of eligible voters (and in one case, where the lone candidate had been disqualified, leaving nobody on the ballot). If it does convene, it will be a single party parliament, with a substantial number of members having been beaten by "vote for nobody." It can't last long like that, and we'll need to go through the electoral exercise again.

On Wednesday, Taksin went to his office to clean out his desk. He would temporarily hand the reins over to his deputy, Chidchai Vanasatidya. Khun Chidchai would be "acting PM" until the next government, however Taksin will still be the "official" PM with no duties. It's the same situation as when he leaves a deputy in charge when he's out of the country. Stubborn to the end, he simply won't say the word "resign." That would be like letting somebody else "win." He may have forgotten his own lofty rhetoric the previous evening, about unity being more important than winning against rivals. Earlier that day he launched charges against a newspaper, and personally launched lese majeste charges against his rival, Sondhi Limthongkul.

The crisis isn't over by a long shot, but at least we can begin to see the way. Unfortunately there's probably no constitutional way to simply re-seat the previous parliament. That means another election, with all parties participating, and the sooner the better. But for now, I'm just hugely grateful that we've reached this point without bloodshed.

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