Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra looks from behind a booth as she votes at a polling station in Bangkok February 2, 2014.
Damir Sagolj / Courtesy Reuters

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 Formally removing Yingluck from a post she no longer occupies under rules of a constitution no longer in force is likewise considered a politically motivated assassination rather than an exercise in clean governance.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 conflict, pitting Thaksin, his family, and his allies against traditional elites associated with the palace, the military, the bureaucracy, and the Democrat Party. The elite-level conflict embodies a deeper struggle over a fundamental political question: How should political authority be acquired and exercised? Since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, popular sovereignty and a traditional hierarchy based on Buddhist cosmology 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.

Responding to her impeachment, Yingluck cited a speech she gave in Mongolia in April 2013 that marked a turning point in her premiership. After taking office in mid-2011, Yingluck made a virtue of necessity, assuming an imperturbable and conciliatory persona in order to mollify the establishment. In the Mongolia speech, she dropped her characteristic conciliatory tone and attacked “an antidemocratic regime” that toppled Thaksin in a 2006 coup, that ejected two pro-Thaksin prime ministers in 2008, and that, she said, continued to menace her administration. Her opponents, including opposition politicians and appointed senators, were outraged that she had implicitly and publicly criticized them from overseas. From that point on, a popular movement to oust her gained momentum. Her foolishly provocative bid to grant amnesty to her brother, in self-imposed exile following a 2008 abuse-of-power conviction, sparked months of protests culminating in her removal from office by the Constitutional Court and, soon thereafter, a military coup on May 22, 2014.

The sitting military regime, calling itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), promised to “return happiness” to the Thai people, overcoming social divisions and political rifts. Yingluck’s impeachment risks signaling that the military has surrendered all pretensions of impartiality, increasing the possibility of future turmoil. The motion also reinforces perceptions that independent watchdog agencies practice double standards: one for the Shinawatra family and their supporters and another for their opponents. Yingluck’s supporters point to the contrast between the National Anti-Corruption Commission’s swift and single-minded investigation and impeachment campaign and its long-stalled investigation of alleged graft in the previous Democrat Party government’s rice guarantee scheme. (The NACC explained that relevant documents were lost or damaged in the devastating 2011 floods.)

Until January, Yingluck Shinawatra’s odds of evading impeachment looked good. The NCPO had placed a premium on lowering the political heat, prohibiting expression of political differences in the interest of order and reconciliation. Military members of the National Legislative Assembly even lobbied against impeachment. But some coup supporters were growing disenchanted with the NCPO’s failure to punish the Shinawatras. Anti-Thaksin partisans demanded that the NCPO not “waste” the 2014 coup (as they believe the 2006 coup was squandered) by failing to eradicate the family’s influence once and for all. The vote to impeach strongly suggested to many observers that the NCPO decided that it could more easily manage the disaffection of Shinawatra supporters than that of the family’s enemies: the old guard elite and their allies.

Impeachment has roiled Thailand’s politics on a local and global scale. Visiting Bangkok on January 26, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel noted how the impeachment could be seen as “politically driven” and called for the lifting of martial law. The comments sparked angry condemnation from regime supporters and prompted the Foreign Ministry to summon the U.S. chargé d’affaires, reaffirming the need for martial law until unrest abated. On February 1, two small pipe bombs exploded in downtown Bangkok, slightly injuring one person.

By using the postcoup period to exorcise the Shinawatras’ influence, the military will only increase the likelihood of further unrest. The 2006 coup and ensuing effort to neuter elected authority ushered in a period of unprecedented turmoil and political violence. The coup makers’ 2007 constitution strengthened the judiciary and watchdog agencies in a vain effort to prevent a Shinawatra resurgence. But Thaksin-backed parties have won every general election since 2001; the persistent appeal of their policies among voters is such that no one seriously doubts their capacity to continue doing so if permitted. For all the anti-Shinawatra talk of “parliamentary dictatorship”—and Thaksin did play fast and loose with his commitment to democracy—courts and independent agencies succeeded in crippling pro-Shinawatra governments. The Constitutional Court removed every pro-Thaksin prime minister since the 2006 coup and ensured that no Thaksin-aligned party succeeded in making good on campaign pledges to amend the 2007 constitution.

The NCPO’s handpicked reform commission and constitution-drafting committee are currently shaping Thailand’s future political order. Their members are overwhelmingly pro-establishment and skeptical of majoritarian politics. Their proposals include allowing unelected individuals to become prime minister, screening candidates for the elected portion of a semiappointed Senate, instituting an electoral system that encourages intraparty competition, and empowering the Constitutional Court to break political deadlocks. All of this suggests a system of weak political parties and unstable coalitions, typical of the 1980s’ “semidemocracy,” in which the military and establishment elites called the shots. Some who stand to benefit from such arrangements are nostalgic for this style of politics. A draft constitution is due to be completed in mid-April and the final version approved in August, with a general election to follow in the first quarter of 2016.

Thailand needs strong institutions to ensure effective representation and accountability. Above all, it needs leaders brave enough to realize that without compromise, the likely result is intensified instability. Compromise demands a process of national dialogue to determine a shared notion of democracy and to ensure that the popular will—embodied in a fully empowered executive and legislature—is respected while protecting the interests of all. This is unlikely to be accomplished by fiat. The process must be inclusive and recognized as credible by the public. Rigging the system in favor of appointed officials did not work after the 2006 coup, and it won’t work now.