April 6, 2006

Thai crisis far from over

By Darren Schuettler

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra's decision to step aside after a snap election left
him unable to form a new government has let some steam out of a
seven-month political crisis, but the drama is far from over.

The main opposition parties are boycotting by-elections on
April 23 meant to complete last weekend's snap poll called by
Thaksin to rout critics who accused him of corruption and abuse
of power. They want political reforms first.

Most of the 39 seats, all but one in the southern
opposition stronghold, could remain unfilled.

Only a full parliament can elect a new prime minister to
replace Thaksin, but parliament must convene within 30 days of
the April 2 poll.

Meanwhile, Thaksin says he will take "a rest" but retain
leadership of his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, a move his enemies
say will allow him to pull strings from behind the scenes.

Months of hard negotiations lie ahead and the outcome is

Following are some possible scenarios:


- The Election Commission says re-runs in 39 constituencies
are open to the three parties that boycotted the April 2
general election. The opposition wants meaningful political
reforms first.

If the by-elections are inconclusive, the EC could ask the
Constitutional Court to allow parliament to meet while more
polls are held, analysts say.

But that could trigger protests against the court which has
handed Thaksin two favorable rulings in the past.

"Whether the Constitutional Court, the involuntary power
broker in the present political situation, would play along
with the TRT remains to be seen," said Kim Eng Securities.


- Street protesters outside Government House have packed
up. But they left behind yet another ultimatum for Thaksin --
leave politics completely, or the protests resume on April 30.

"Thaksin will no longer be the prime minister, but he is
still the leader of the party and will bring in his nominee to
implement his policies, which we won't accept," media mogul and
rally leader Sondhi Limthongkul said.

But April is the hottest month of the year and opinion
polls show most Bangkok residents growing weary of the protests
and the disruptions they cause.


Critics say the 1997 "People's" Constitution needs a
rewrite to close loopholes used by Thaksin to undermine checks
and balances and subvert the independence of watchdog agencies.

That process will take six months to a year and involve a
"neutral" committee of former charter drafters, judges and
legal experts, says Bhokin Bhalakula, the former speaker of
parliament and lawyer who is likely to oversee the process.

The opposition has not spelled out what reforms it wants,
but analysts say it may seek to curb the powers of the prime

A rule requiring election candidates to belong to a party
for 90 days -- designed to prevent the political bed-hopping
that fostered shaky coalitions -- may also come under scrutiny
by unhappy factions within Thaksin's party.

"There will be a nasty war during the political reform
process as a lot of politicians want to change this 90-day
rule," the Nation newspaper said.


- June 9 is a date that looms large in Thailand.

Thaksin cited King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 60th anniversary on
the throne as the main reason for stepping aside ahead of
celebrations to be attended by royalty from around the world.

"I ask every party, whether you love or hate me, to please
think of the core of the country. The king," Thaksin said in
urging Thais to reunite.

But by playing the "royal card," he put the ball in the
opposition court to match the gesture to end the crisis before
the royal anniversary.

"The king has been used as a reason for compromise and to
restore stability," said Bob Broadfoot of Political and
Economic Risk Consultancy.

"To me it implies that if they are not really careful, the
opposition can overplay their hand because they are no longer
going against Thaksin, they are going against the king."


- Thaksin is down, but not out yet.

From his post as party leader, analysts say Thaksin is
likely to wield power through a puppet successor, widely
expected to be either Bhokin or Commerce Minister Somkid

"Government policy will remain the same under his guidance,

and as head of the ruling party, he could exercise
continued large scale authority, particularly if planned
reforms to weaken the powers of the prime minister come to
fruition," said Elizabeth Mills of Global Insight.

Other analysts say a key challenge will be holding together
a political juggernaut that won the biggest majorities in Thai

"If they didn't have this 90-day rule, lots of people would
have quit," said Christopher Bruton of Dataconsult Ltd.

"I'm sure we are going to see a lot of back-door
negotiations in the coming weeks. Thai politics is very
factional and its quite unnatural for a party like Thai Rak
Thai to hold together in this way."