The January 23 impeachment of former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for failing to curb alleged corruption in her administration’s rice subsidy scheme threatens to derail more than her political career; it also imperils the military regime’s effort to suppress political discord. With the impeachment, the legislature, appointed by the military following the May 2014 ouster of Yingluck’s government, undermined its professed nonpartisanship in favor of the anti-Thaksin establishment in an ever more strident feud over Thailand’s future course. At a time when the nation needs compromise, stability, and engagement across the political spectrum, Yingluck’s impeachment appears to many as a settling of scores, and its partisan implications make the prospect of progress look ever further off.
For Yingluck’s enemies and those of her brother, one-time prime minister and now éminence grise Thaksin Shinawatra, the impeachment demonstrated a new determination to combat graft. The rice subsidy scheme was designed to lift farmers’ incomes and raise global prices of the grain by paying farmers double the market rate and warehousing their harvested crops. After India and Vietnam filled the subsequent hole in global supply, Thailand racked up an estimated $15 billion in losses. The judgment against Yingluck carries a five-year ban from politics, and a pending indictment for criminal negligence could result in a ten-year jail term.
For Yingluck’s supporters, on the other hand, impeachment was one more instance of her enemies’ boundless chutzpah. They believe that her party’s populist policies, such as the rice subsidies, have incurred her opponents’ wrath not because they are ethically dubious but rather because of their popularity with a newly empowered agrarian class, a burgeoning voting bloc for future elections. Formally removing Yingluck from a post she no longer occupies under rules of a constitution no longer in force is likewise considered a politically motivated assassination rather than an exercise in clean governance.
The conflict between the Shinawatra family and their political detractors is long running. It is a conventional interelite have constituted competing principles of political legitimacy. Thailand’s 19 attempted and successful coups d’état (and each subsequent constitution) attest to unresolved tensions between elected and appointed authority.
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