Political unrest is likely to escalate over the next two months, writes head of Asia analysis and forecasting at IHS Country Risk Omar Hamid
On 9 December, the prime minister of Thailand Yingluck Shinawatra announced the government’s decision to dissolve the House of Representatives. Yingluck will remain at the helm of government until a new cabinet is formed ahead of a fresh election. The Election Commission has stated that a general election will be held according to the constitution within the next 60 days.
The government’s decision to call an early election follows the mass resignation of 153 opposition Democrat Party members of parliament on 8 December. Following their announcement, Democrat Party members including former prime minister and leader Abhisit Vejjajiva joined the anti-government street marches. The rallies attracted an estimated 200,000 demonstrators, who marched from eight different locations in Bangkok to Government House in Dusit.
Despite the dissolution of the House of Representatives, anti-government protests are likely to continue over the next two months until a new government is formed, barring any last-minute agreement between the government and the opposition. Opposition protest leaders have demanded that Shinawatra and the cabinet resign to make way for an unelected ‘people’s council’, which would decide on political and legislative reforms. Now that a fresh election has been called, the opposition is likely to escalate protests in order to put maximum pressure on the government to agree to its demands.
IHS assesses that neither the Democrat Party nor its political successor is likely to win the next general election. First, there are few indications that the anti-government protests have gained large new camps of supporters that were previously loyal to the Pheu Thai Party (PTP). With the exception of isolated protests in certain southern provinces that are traditionally Democrat Party strongholds, the protests have primarily been confined to Bangkok’s urban middle class. Secondly, the PTP has taken concrete steps to maintain the support of its rural constituency in the north of Thailand, through its rice subsidy scheme. Since Shinawatra took office in 2011, the government has been purchasing rice from local farmers at prices set above market rates.
Thirdly, opposition protest leaders have consistently taken the position that a fresh election would not stem their protests, stating that only the replacement of the government by an unelected people’s council would suffice for their purposes. If the opposition were confident of its ability to form the next government, the calling of a fresh election would have been its key demand.
Now that parliament has been dissolved, there is a higher risk of the opposition escalating anti-government protests. As the opposition is unlikely to win in the next general election, it now has every incentive to escalate protests in order to put maximum pressure on the government to capitulate to its demands before the election date. There is therefore an increased risk that anti-government protests may turn violent.
Protestors are likely to continue demonstrating at government buildings such as the government complex at Chaeng Wattana, the democracy monument on Ratchadamnoen, the Metropolitan Police Bureau (in Dusit), the finance ministry (on Rama VI road) and Government House (in Dusit). They are also likely to occupy an even greater number of government buildings and pro-media outlets, as well as to forcibly remove occupants and cut power lines in order to achieve their ends. There is also a higher risk of Red Shirt-owned assets being targeted.
Should this occur, fighting would be likely to break out between riot police and anti-government protestors, as well as between anti-government Yellow Shirt and pro-government Red Shirt protestors. The government has so far exercised significant restraint when dealing with the protestors. It has instructed the police not to forcibly dispel the protests, even going so far as to remove barricades to allow protestors to enter government buildings such as the Metropolitan Police Bureau. Pro-government Red Shirt protestors were also instructed to de-camp from their protest site at Rajamangala stadium in Hua Mark on 1 December, following fighting between Red Shirts and anti-government student protestors that weekend.
However, the restraint showed by the PTP is unlikely to hold now that parliament has been dissolved and a fresh election is due. With the armed forces publicly stating that a military-backed coup is unlikely to materialise, the PTP no longer has the incentive to engage in dialogue with the opposition in the hopes of stemming protests with an amicable political compromise. There is therefore an increased risk of fighting breaking out if riot police move to prevent anti-government protestors from occupying buildings or use force to dispel them. In the most extreme case, armed Red Shirts would target Yellow Shirt protest sites in arson, grenade, or small-scale improvised explosive device attacks.