A coup – or not – in Bangkok

The crisis in Thailand that began more than six months ago with the battle over an amnesty bill entered a new stage this morning when the Thai army declared martial law and seized control of key institutions in Bangkok. But it’s not quite a military coup, or at least not yet.

It’s not unknown, of course, for coup leaders to deny that that’s what they are. But it’s unusual, to say the least, for them to stress that the civilian government remains in place. For the moment, however, army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha is shying away from taking on the responsibility of government; his spokesman is quoted saying that “This martial law is just to restore peace and stability, it has nothing to do with the government. The government is still functioning as normal.”

“Normal” is probably not the right word here, since the government of acting prime minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan has been looking decidedly precarious. Elections that were held in the face of opposition obstruction in February were invalidated by the constitutional court, and prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was subsequently disqualified from office on an unrelated matter.

Fresh elections were scheduled for 20 July, but the electoral commission seemed pessimistic about the chances of conducting them peacefully, and it was unlikely they would solve much in any case.

Last week the Senate, the only part of parliament still functioning, called for the appointment of a compromise administration, in a move that added to uncertainty without satisfying either the government or the opposition. The situation appeared headed for violence as “red shirt” protesters had vowed to resist any move to oust the government. Talks yesterday failed to reach agreement, and general Prayuth evidently decided that it was time to act.

You can read more about what’s happening in the (broadly pro-government) Bangkok Post and the (opposition-leaning) Nation.

Talk of military intervention to end the crisis has never been far away. The opposition, including the increasingly ill-named Democrat Party, had pinned its hopes on something of the sort to ensure that elections would not be held until the government and constitution had been appropriately purged so as to minimise the influence of Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party.

With the country’s royalist and military establishment strongly opposed to Yingluck and her exiled brother Thaksin, that was not an unreasonable hope. But the establishment is no longer as united as it was at the time of the anti-Thaksin coup of 2006: King Bhumibol is eight years older and sidelined by poor health, and the army has been doing everything it can to avoid having to take sides.

What Prayuth obviously wants is for the politicians to reach a compromise that will allow elections to be held while he guarantees security. That will probably mean going further in the direction of the opposition’s demands than Niwattumrong and the red shirts would like, but it’s hard to see what the alternative is. And Thai electoral behavior for more than a decade has been remarkably consistent: unless the constitution is comprehensively gutted, Pheu Thai must remain favorites to again win a majority.

So whether or not the military intervention is likely to be a success depends on how you characterise the underlying problem. If it’s just a few politicians selfishly unable to agree, then a general knocking some heads together might be just the thing.

But if (as I fear) it’s a more radical incompatibility, with one whole side of politics simply unable to accept the verdict of democracy, then the same trouble will just re-emerge whenever the soldiers go back to their barracks.

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