Transition almost an anticlimax


If you don’t know today is a big day, you are not alone. When Thaksin Shinawatra is sworn in for his second term this evening, it will mark the smoothest political transition in modern Thai history, if you discount the staged handovers between dictatorial regimes of the 1950s and 1960s.

It used to be a major event normally preceded by coup, turmoil, infighting, malicious manoeuvring, back-stabbing and even bloodshed – not to mention “that day” when prime ministerial candidate Somboon Rahong was all dressed up and waiting for a Royal command that never came.

Every change of prime minister in the 1970s was marred by turbulence. Things cooled down when General Prem Tinsulanonda took power in 1980, although his eight-year rule was disrupted by several coup attempts.

When Chatichai Choonhavan took the country’s helm in 1988, the swearing-in ceremony was big news because it underlined the long-awaited return to elected leadership. His successor, Anand Panyarachun, caught even bigger attention as he was named by military strongmen who toppled Chatichai to lead an interim government in 1991.

The transition of power from the 1991 coup-makers to the first elected government after the coup was marred with political tension and uncertainties.

At that time, the Samakkhitham party won most House seats and its leader, Narong Wongwan, was supposed to be the prime minister. But Narong was never nominated for the position, amid rumours that he was blacklisted by the US government as a drug trafficker.

Narong’s chance was shot down to the benefit of Suchinda Kraprayoon, a member of the coup-making National Peacekeeping Council. Many saw Suchinda’s appointment as an attempt by the council to perpetuate its power. It sparked national uproar and anger, leading to the May crisis of 1992.

Following the downfall of the month-long Suchinda administration, Somboon – second in charge of Samakkhitam – had his chance.

Poor Somboon was expecting a Royal command to appoint him as the next prime minister when the president of Parliament, Arthit Urairat, left the Grand Palace. But Arthit went straight to Anand’s house, not Somboon’s. Arthit later disclosed he had nominated Anand for the post of prime minister in an interim government pending a new general election.

The September 1992 election saw Democrat Party leader Chuan Leekpai heading a coalition government. It was a stormy dependence upon coalition partners, and the government was eventually brought down by the Sor Por Kor land-reform scandal.

Following the House dissolution, the Chat Thai Party narrowly beat the Democrats and Banharn Silapa-archa won the post of prime minister in 1995, but not before complex political manoeuvring for coalition support. At the time there always remained a chance that the Democrats would gather a bigger coalition and grab the reins of power.

After the fall of the Banharn government in the aftermath of a no-confidence debate, the Democrats were defeated again, this time by the New Aspiration Party of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. But it needed masterful manoeuvring by Chavalit’s political general, Snoh Thienthong, to pull a coalition together so that Chavalit could become premier .

After a stormy one-year rule, Chavalit was forced to step down by the economic crisis and there followed a classic political manoeuvre. Chatichai was supposed to succeed him as prime minister, but a group of MPs led by Vatana Asavahame violated their party’s resolution and switched support to the Democrats. The “angelic camp” returned to power for a second time, only to be beaten by Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai in the general election of 2001.

Published on March 09, 2005