Premier Samak Sundaravej’s People’s Power Party (PPP) gained power in last December’s election that the Democratic Party more pointedly lost. Heading a new coalition, Samak had to live down the image of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s stooge, limiting his room for manoeuvre.
Thaksin remains influential without holding political office, raising fears of overturning the corruption and other charges against him. This lack of public confidence in due judicial process is largely behind current street protests, which in the absence of a clear post-Thaksin target is fixated on a PR-deficient Samak.
As protest rallies in Bangkok mounted over the weekend centring on Government House, the gruff premier bellowed: “On Monday I will go to work at Government House and there will be no problem getting in.” So he did, but staying in from next Monday could be another matter.
Much of Samak’s future as prime minister may be decided this week, with the result known within days. Since his prospect of staying in power seems as strong as that of his abrupt departure, with much depending on his mercurial nature, things could go either way.
Protests are unlikely to see much change because Samak is not as culpable as Thaksin on a range of issues, attracting less unified scorn. The protests also lack the moral legitimacy for change, coming just five months after the PPP-led coalition took office following an undisputed election.
There is also the crucial fact that the military is not pushing Samak out. The army in particular remains a factor in the nation’s politics, but the generals have yet to coalesce against Samak’s premiership.
Still, Samak is isolated even within his own party, enjoys no support from Thaksin, and has to compete against party colleagues for his job, as opponents hope that the resignation of a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office would start the ball rolling.
Furthermore, the military’s patience in seeing a return to the status quo is being tested as protests drag on.
Even as Samak seethes with impatience to take some action this week, he is constrained by parliamentary procedure. He is hamstrung by a censure motion, charges of mismanagement and a no-confidence debate being played out until today before a vote tomorrow.
For most of this week Samak has to take a back seat as events rush by him to determine his fate, with this flurry of activity deceptively concealing a basic stalemate.
Meanwhile, the protests are getting on Samak’s nerves and more so his pride. The reason he remains prime minister is incumbency: he does not wish to go, and there is no constitutional or military force to make him.
The opposition Democrat Party has tried to pour fuel on the fire by highlighting controversies like Cambodia’s plan to list the Preah Vihear temple on disputed territory as a world heritage site, but such efforts only mirror Bangkok’s confusion.
If the street protests achieve anything at all, it would only be Samak’s resignation rather than the Thaksin-friendly PPP’s removal. A major irony would see Samak succeeded by a party leader like Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee or Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama, both being closer aides to Thaksin.
The other irony is for the PPP’s minor coalition partners to drift to the Democrats in forming a new government. That would be undemocratic, despite the core party’s name, since the change would not then have been voted in.
Yet another major irony is how the protests spearheaded by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) seems to entrench this non-democratic, extra-parliamentary route to change as a permanent fixture in the country’s political system.
Beyond exercising their democratic rights to free speech and assembly, protesters are pushing mass rallies into becoming the third principal agency of national politics, after Parliament and the military. That would make two out of Thailand’s three major political institutions undemocratic