The Economist explains
Why Thai politics is broken
The two sides would answer this question differently. For the government’s opponents, Thai democracy has been hijacked by Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon and former prime minister now in self-imposed exile, having been sentenced to jail in Thailand for corruption. But parties loyal to him keep on winning elections—in 2001 and three times since. The latest incarnation is led by his sister, Yingluck. Before Mr Thaksin’s emergence, Thai government alternated between fractious, corrupt coalitions and fractious, corrupt military dictatorships (the army has made 18 coup attempts since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932). Thanks to a new democratic constitution introduced in 1997, however, Thaksinite parties can win elections even without coalition partners, thanks to votes from the populous north and north-east of the country. Critics accuse the Thaksins of massive corruption and of bankrupting the country with populist policies. For Mr Thaksin’s supporters, however, the problem is that he has threatened the interests of the old Thai establishment, represented by the civil service, the army, the judiciary and the monarchy. They portray the protests as an anti-democratic backlash from a privileged class under threat.
Both explanations have some merit. Thaksinite governments have tended to rule in their voters’ interests, not the whole country’s; and their opponents are not just from a well-heeled elite. Thai society is split. But not quite down the middle: Thaksin loyalists do win elections. Thai politics has broken down because the compact on which democracy is based—that losers will accept the result until the next election—no longer applies. Large, influential sections of Thai society find rule by the Thaksin family simply intolerable. They will use almost any tactic to unseat it, including accusing it of disloyalty to the much-revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. That the king is 86 and frail, and his presumed successor, the crown prince, is unpopular, and seen as perhaps susceptible to Mr Thaksin’s influence, fuels the sense of panic in the opposition.
The election, if it takes place, will result in a landslide for Miss Yingluck, but change nothing. The opposition will hope she can be overthrown by a coup, or by legal action (an anti-corruption commission is investigating her). But a government run by Mr Thaksin’s opponents, such as the one in power from 2008 to 2011, will be illegitimate and unstable. And the longer the to-and-fro continues, the more fundamental will appear the divisions in Thailand, which are not just social, but also cultural and even ethnic and linguistic, between fairer-skinned southerners, many with some Chinese ancestry, and northerners, who speak a version of Thai closer to Lao. So the protests threaten not just peace and stability, but the very integrity of Thailand.