Bangkok: Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva came under mounting pressure on Tuesday to resolve a stand-off with anti-government protesters after the Election Commission recommended his party be dissolved.
Abhisit, who came to power in December 2008 when the army brokered a deal in parliament, would have to step down if a court, following the election commission’s findings, eventually found his party guilty of funding irregularities.
Further isolating the embattled premier, the army chief said on Monday at a joint news conference with the deputy prime minister that early elections could end the impasse.
It was the first public comment on the deadlock by the head of the powerful army after the security forces failed on Saturday to eject protesters from their base in central Bangkok in clashes that killed 21 and injured more than 800.
“It looks like Abhisit’s fortune may be waning,” said Sukhum Nuansakul, an independent political scientist.
“The tide could still turn, but at this point it looks like the army and the coalition partners are becoming risk averse and looking out for themselves. Violence on Saturday altered the equation a little and is making things difficult for Abhisit.”
The “red shirt” protesters, mostly rural and working-class supporters of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup, want Abhisit to call polls immediately.
The electoral fraud case could take months as prosecutors and the Constitutional Court act on the commission’s recommendation.
A guilty verdict could lead to the dissolution of Abhisit’s Democrats, the country’s oldest party, and party executives could be banned for politics for several years. The court found two Thaksin-allied parties guilty of fraud in 2007 and 2008.
Red Shirts Reject Offer
On Monday, coalition partners proposed that Abhisit dissolve parliament in six months. He had already offered nine months.
“It could help solve the crisis and we should not rule out negotiations with every side, including Thaksin,” Bhumjaithai Party leader Chavarat Charnvirakul told Reuters.
The Bangkok Post said the red shirts had rejected the idea.
Financial markets are closed from Tuesday for the three-day “Songkran” festival that marks the new year. Stocks fell 3.6 percent on Monday after a boisterous but peaceful month-long red-shirt demonstration in the capital turned violent.
Despite army commander Anupong Paochinda’s comment that “parliamentary dissolution seems to be a reasonable step”, some questioned whether the army top brass agreed on the way forward.
“It’s not clear if the army is speaking with one voice,” said said Charnvit Kasertsiri, a prominent Thai political historian.
“Anupong is retiring and is looking for a graceful, non-confrontational exit but others, including his potential successor, may have a different solution.”
The deadlock brought back speculation of another coup in a country that has seen 18 since 1932.
Deputy Prime Minister Trirong Suwankiri told a roundtable in Washington that a street clash among civilians — involving anti-Thaksin “yellow shirts” for example — could prompt the military to stage another coup.
“Nobody has to order them,” Trirong said, adding the army may feel it had a responsibility to restore order.
Bangkok has been calm since Sunday. Ministers have suggested security forces would not conduct operations over the holiday.
Thousands of red shirts remain camped out in two areas of Bangkok, including an upmarket shopping district whose big malls have had to stay closed for much of the past 10 days.
Red shirt guards man checkpoints, direct traffic and check the identity of passers-by. Pick-up trucks, taxis and motorcycles are parked on streets, stopping traffic from entering areas under red shirt control. Police and soldiers are nowhere in sight.
Rate Hike Unlikely
Rahul Bajoria, a regional economist for Barclays Capital in Singapore said the uncertainty was not good for investors and it meant the Bank of Thailand was unlikely to raise interest rates this month, but he said the economic picture remained favourable.
“Commodity prices are still strong, rural consumption is going up, auto manufacturing is rising and inflationary pressure is only gradually building up,” he said.
“If the domestic uncertainty is prolonged, it will affect consumer confidence as the tourism sector suffers, thus affecting private consumption, which will go down,” he added.
Tourism accounts for 6 percent of the economy and directly employs 1.8 million people.
The tourist sector was badly hit in Monday’s stock market sell-off. National carrier Thai Airways fell nearly 14 percent and Airports of Thailand 4%.
The Asian Development Bank forecast on Tuesday that the Thai economy would grow 4% this year, although bank officials said that might be revised, depending on the outcome of the political crisis. The government has forecast 4.5%.