WHAT LIES AHEAD?
Post-Thaksin questions are mostly old ones, except whether the most loved
and most hated leader is going for good
Outgoing prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra fights back tears as one of his supporters sobs on his shoulder at Thai Rak Thai headquarters. Many of Thaksin’s supporters find it hard to cope with Thaksin’s decision not to seek another term as premier.
The ultimate question remains unanswered: Is this real regime change? Despite the emotional announcement, the tears, the planned vacation, and the designation of a new caretaker leader, Thaksin Shinawatra has built a political legacy too deep-rooted, massive and enigmatic to be easily undone. Combine that with his unrivalled resilience and reputation for frequent changes of heart and hidden agendas, and Tuesday's euphoria among one half of this divided Kingdom has gradually become clouded by the familiar shadow of mistrust.
Optimists saw yesterday's assignment of Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Vanasatidya to work on Thaksin's behalf while he takes a holiday in England as a further retreat. Emotional farewells with Cabinet members and rural supporters also led many to believe that even if Thaksin did not mean to stay away from politics for long, the "exile" won't be too short, either. Everyone is looking forward to the beginning of a political-reform process, which would take much, if not all, of this year, and then a new general election under new rules.
Not rosy, but achievable. The optimists were encouraged by the humble manner of his departure. On Monday, Thaksin was his usual arrogant and provocative self, insisting that he won a comfortable election victory with more than half of votes cast nationwide supporting his leadership. After an audience with His Majesty the King in Hua Hin the next day, however, he returned to Bangkok a forlorn and subdued figure, reportedly in tears, and called an urgent press conference.
It was a different Thaksin speaking from that podium. He delivered undoubtedly the best speech of his premiership, apologising solemnly to the 16 million voters who supported him and admitting that continued conflict and turmoil would only endanger the nation. He didn't even appear to try to claim that he was making a sacrifice, and even some of his most vocal critics seemed quite softened by the speech.
Pessimists say, don't believe what you see - at least as not yet. And their reasons seem more solid than those of the optimistic camp. First and foremost, Thaksin did not say he would be gone for good. He will still be there, as an MP and leader of the Thai Rak Thai Party, which stands a good chance of forming the core of an interim government that will take the country through this year. If that really happens, will the next government become just another version of the allegedly "Thaksin-free" Shin Corp?
Not surprisingly, the political focus is now on what Thaksin allegedly does best - his use of nominees. The identity of the next prime minister will tell a lot about the country's immediate course. If it's Somkid Jatusripitak, the nation can expect a relatively smooth transition to facilitate a constitutional amendment process. The likes of Bhokin Bhalakula, Sudarat Keyuraphan and Chidchai, however, will set alarm bells ringing.
Before we get to that point, there's the issue of convening the "incomplete" House of Representatives. One school of thought believes Thaksin's "exile" will facilitate the correction of all that was wrong with the April 2 snap election and hopefully the House can convene to elect the new prime minister. In this scenario, Thai Rak Thai very likely will still serve as the foundation of the next government, and it will be a toss-up as to whether a crisis of confidence will be rekindled.
The other school foresees a drastic measure to pre-empt the looming farce of nearly 500 Thai Rak Thai MPs, many of whom were beaten by "no votes" or invalid ballots on April 2, parading into Parliament. There is a strong possibility of attempts to nullify the election results, probably through the Administrative Court, to pave the way for either a royally appointed caretaker prime minister and Cabinet or a new election.
Thailand's political road remains plagued with landmines. Adding to the uncertainty is the likelihood of factional turmoil in the wake of Thaksin's dramatic decision. The party has already been divided into three major camps. The first is led by Newin Chidchob, Yongyut Tiyapairat and Prommin Lertsuridej. The second one comprises party financiers. The third is called the "S Group", which brings together major veterans including Suriya Jungrungreangkit, Somsak Thepsuthin, Suwat Liptapanlop, Suchart Tancharoen and Pinij Charusombat with about 150 MPs under their control.
The third group emerged as the most powerful faction in the party after Tuesday, and it is believed to be backing Somkid as the new prime minister. This may pit them against the other camps and Thaksin himself, who want Bhokin to fill the leader's shoes. It is no secret that Thaksin trusts Bhokin more than Somkid, who the patriarch reportedly fears would become "another Anand Panyarachun". "Thaksin fears that Somkid might act like Anand, who worked independently after being named interim prime minister by the military after its coup in 1992," a Thai Rak Thai source said.
If the "S" faction wants to liberate itself from Thaksin, now or the near future might be the best time to act. Thaksin suppressed all the Thai Rak Thai factions throughout five years in power with the help of a constitutional rule that election candidates must have held membership of the political party they represent for at least 90 days. As a national election must be held within 60 days of the House dissolution, no party MPs dared challenge Thaksin, who "enslaved" them with his power to dissolve the House.
There will be a nasty war during the political-reform process as a lot of politicians want to change this 90-day rule. If this rule is scrapped, there will be a whole new ball game, and if Thaksin wants to stage a comeback, things will be very different by the time he returns to the ring.
A source close to Somkid said he was keen to become the next prime minister because it would not be easy for him to get the post under normal circumstances. Other sources said whether the "S Group" declares its independence depends on future circumstances. "If the cake is shared equally among all factions, there may be no rebellion. But if Thaksin still holds absolute control in the party the break-up wont be a matter of if, but when," one said.
The least-talked about scenario is Thaksin's permanent exile, but certain analysts don't think it's the least likely. His tears may convey more messages than his words, they believe. But then again, "we should have known him better" has become a lament strongly associated with the maverick's character. What lies ahead? If you are an anti-Thaksin pessimist, you may take this as a pun.