Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s grip on power looked more tenuous than ever on Friday after the nation’s constitutional court ruled snap elections she called for the first week of February could legally be delayed.
Though Shinawatra and her administration insist the vote can and should proceed as planned — they expect it would serve to re-legitimize her rule — the election commission is concerned chaos in the streets will infect the process. Perhaps more alarming to the prime minister and her fervent “red shirt” followers (mostly concentrated in the north and rural areas of the country, where she has traditionally racked up huge margins on the way to easy election victories) is that the Thai legal system and military establishment have a storied history of removing wayward premiers (like her brother) from power. In the meantime, they seem to be doing everything possible to make trouble for the government, including a lackadaisical approach to cracking down on protesters.
Shinawatra being ousted by a traditional coup d’etat or the National Anti-Corruption Commission (which is probing her controversial rice subsidy scheme) seems more plausible by the day, raising the question of what the aftermath might look like. Most likely, we would see a sort of regional showdown, as the premier and her allies would be expected to retreat to the northern countryside where she is most popular. Bangkok is already nearly lost to the opposition, enraged at the idea that the premier’s brother, former P.M. Thaksin Shinawatra, is running the show from exile in Dubai (the protests initially began when his sister’s party advanced a bill that might have granted him amnesty). That large swaths of the country remain devout followers of the Shinawatra clan, grateful for robust social welfare programs that have made higher education possible for the poor, has the Thai political system teetering on the brink of collapse, the two camps diametrically opposed and one side — the premier’s — enjoying a clear numerical advantage.
Shinawatra’s unwillingness or inability to mend fences with her detractors has most experts thinking it’s not a matter of if, but when, the military or some other power-center makes its move. In the meantime, the street protests continue. Short of some kind of external menace that serves to unite the country, Thailand could quite plausibly split in two, meaning this is no longer just an internal dispute but, increasingly, a regional nightmare that threatens to ensnare neighbors like Burma and Vietnam.