BANGKOK (Reuters) - More than 20,000 supporters of former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra rallied in the historic heart of Bangkok on Monday, handing in a petition to seek a royal pardon for the fugitive billionaire.
Plans to submit the petition had renewed fears of an intensification of the country’s four-year political crisis, which would further damage Thailand’s reputation as a stable investment and tourist destination.
The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), whose red-shirted ranks are filled largely by the rural poor, says 3.5 million Thais signed the petition, which has angered royalists and the middle classes who despise Thaksin.
The following are scenarios for the coming months.
ATTEMPT TO SUBMIT PETITION COULD TRIGGER UNREST
The petition to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej has sparked anger among anti-Thaksin elements.
The handing-in passed off without incident, but there is always a chance the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) could protest at what they see as an outrage to the king, prompting fears of clashes or even military intervention.
So far, the PAD has vowed not to rally against the petition, saying it is the government’s duty to block it.
Most commentators believe the petition is unlikely to provide a flashpoint.
They say the motive behind it is to highlight Thaksin’s mass support and to keep his movement alive. They see only a slim chance a pardon will be granted to the fugitive billionaire, who maintains his graft conviction was politically motivated.
“It does not matter whether a royal pardon will be granted or not. What seems to matter most are the numbers to show how popular Thaksin is,” wrote Bangkok Post columnist Veera Prateepchaikul.
Stock market investors were cautious ahead of the rally on Monday but the fall on the day was attributed to other factors. Jitters will continue while the petition process is under way.
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ABHISIT CONSOLIDATES RURAL SUPPORT, RETAINS POWER
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is implementing a wave of economic stimulus measures aimed at winning over the rural poor, Thaksin’s traditional support base, to help him retain power and keep the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai party at bay when new elections take place.
Though he is making progress in reviving the economy, his efforts are unlikely to raise his support significantly among the poor, many of whom remain loyal to Thaksin because of his populist policies while in office.
“Abhisit has grasped how crucial it is to reach out to Thaksin’s power base and try to emulate the populist policies,” said political scientist Prudhisan Jumbala.
“But that won’t be easy and unless the poor see the results of Abhisit’s economic pledges, they won’t be swayed.”
Thailand’s financial markets could underperform their Asian peers if the political impasse is not broken.
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ELECTIONS CALLED, PRO-THAKSIN PARTY WINS MOST VOTES
Abhisit has refused to call elections until the economy has recovered and constitutional reform is undertaken. Critics say he is buying time to try to shore up support for his Democrat party.
In two recent opinion polls by Assumption University, Abhisit was rated a less competent premier than Thaksin, whose popularity could help the Puea Thai party he backs win the most votes in the next election, if not enough for an outright majority.
Analysts say this scenario could lead to more unrest, due to the refusal by the different fronts of the anti-Thaksin camp to accept a nominee government of a fugitive criminal they see as a challenge to the monarchy.
Under this scenario, financial markets would probably fall.
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STALEMATE CONTINUES, MILITARY SEIZE POWER
Though unlikely at this stage, a military coup can never be completely ruled out in a country that has seen 18 actual or attempted coups in 77 years of on-off democracy.
Rumors of a putsch continue to swirl but analysts say Abhisit still has the backing of Thailand’s politicized and power-hungry military, and he continues to toe its line.
“The inside view is Abhisit still enjoys their support and they don’t have anyone they can replace him with,” said Control Risks analyst Jacob Ramsay.
This could well be the least market-friendly scenario, given how maladroit the military-backed government was following the coup that ousted Thaksin in 2006.
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CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM RESTORES STABILITY?
Abhist says he is determined to achieve national reconciliation, but with no side seemingly willing to compromise, it is unlikely to happen any time soon.
A constitutional reform committee has submitted its recommendations but anti-Thaksin elements are unlikely to agree to efforts by his supporters to win an amnesty for scores of disqualified politicians from his two disbanded parties.
“It will have to obtain the support of the military, monarchy and Bangkok elites,” Eurasia Group wrote in a note to clients.
“This will be difficult as the anti-Thaksin forces will be concerned that concessions will eventually lead to a pro-Thaksin government, especially given the Democrats’ track record of ineptness in consolidating power.”
Consensus on constitutional reform could go a long way toward healing the political rifts -- which financial markets would heartily welcome -- but not if it results in a proxy Thaksin government.
Editing by Alan Raybould and Bill Tarrant
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