Thai prime minister should heed call for early elections

There is no easy fix for the political crisis in Thailand, but early elections would be the right place to start. Weeks of street protests against Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his ruling party have crippled the nation’s government and economy. Abhisit declared a state of emergency and the military exercised restraint, until the weekend, when the demonstrations turned violent, leaving 21 dead and hundreds injured. Now Thailand’s army chief is echoing opposition demands to dissolve parliament and hold early elections, a move we support in part because it could stave off another military coup in a country that has seen far too many of them already.

Thai society is deeply divided, with power centralized in the capital, Bangkok, and in the hands of the monarchy and business and military elites. The clashes are both a fight among ruling elites and a fight between the elites and poor, rural Thais who feel left out of the political system. Abhisit represents the Bangkok elites whose wealthy and royalist supporters, known as “Yellow Shirts,” took to the streets in 2006 against then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist policies, such as affordable healthcare; the army ousted Thaksin and parliament installed Abhisit in 2008, with the military’s approval.

Now, Thaksin’s “Red Shirts” are in the streets trying to oust Abhisit. They come largely from the northern provinces, with some support among urban workers. And although they largely back Thaksin, a billionaire who was convicted on corruption charges and fled into exile, their main concern is gaining a bigger piece of the economic and political pie. In past crises, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 82, has stepped in as arbiter, but he has been ill recently and the palace has remained quiet. Meanwhile, the pressure on Abhisit increased Monday when the National Election Commission ruled in favor of a Red Shirt complaint that his Democrat Party had failed to declare and misused $8.8 million in campaign donations. If the Constitutional Court approves the decision, new elections would be called as a result, and the party leadership would be banned from politics for five years. But Abhisit shouldn’t wait for that. He should call an election to help defuse the political turmoil.

What is needed now, and what the U.S. must advocate, is a free and fair election, monitored by international observers, and an agreement by both sides to respect the results. Then Thailand must tackle some of its underlying institutional problems: the need for an independent parliament and judiciary, greater provincial autonomy, a restricted role for the military and broader economic benefits for most Thais.