Thailand Has Ousted Its Prime Minister – Here’s Why You Should Care

It’s over: Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has finally been ousted by a Thai court after a contentious and occasionally bloody political standoff that has dragged on since last summer. In office since the summer of 2011, Shinawatra rode the Thai political tiger for as long as she could — but was eventually brought down by allegations that she transferred a bureaucrat illegally for her own political ends

Yingluck is now the latest political casualty in the ongoing battle between “red shirt” supporters of the Pheu Thai party and her exiled brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the “yellow shirts,” who largely are composed of Bangkok residents and wealthier, urban Thais. Already removed from power, her troubles don’t end there: she was indicted by Thailand’s anti-graft body over a rice subsidy scheme, and may be impeached by the Senate if found guilty.

Sure, Yingluck is out and new caretaker prime minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan is in until the next election is held — but what’s the difference to international observers, already beleaguered this week with news from the Ukraine and Nigeria?

Thailand matters because it’s big, prosperous, and a major political player in the region. Unrest here is followed closely by everyone in the region, and it doesn’t look likely to end soon: the new acting prime minister is a long-time affiliate of Thaksin and the Shinawatra family, and is thus no darling of the Yellow Shirt side.

The Yellow Shirts have yet to be given the change in power that they want, and as a result, protests and unrest in Bangkok will continue into the foreseeable future — likely to only intensify around the date of the next election, which is planned for July but could very well be postponed.

Thailand’s ongoing political crisis has a certain undemocratic nature to it: although Shinawatra’s opponents were vocal and numerous, she was still democratically elected by a majority of the Thai people, most of whom reside outside of the wealthy urban areas that have rallied to the Red Shirt cause.

If polling does take place this summer, it’s likely that Shinawatra and Boonsongphaisan’s Pheu Thai party will handily win the popular vote, an outcome the Yellow Shirts are unlikely to take sitting down. Red Shirts have vowed to continue to fight, and are (perhaps understandably) displeased that the Thai judicial system has continued to rule against them at the highest level.

The Yellow Shirt faction and the Democratic party, for their part, claim that Pheu Thai uses populist politics and other measures to secure the majority of the popular vote fraudulent. If the Yellow Shirts do manage to use their royal connections and greater proportion of national wealth to seize power, Thailand’s rural, less wealthy minority will not be happy — fostering an even greater divide between wealthy urbanites and the rural lower and middle class.

That’s not a recipe for stability, and already skittish investors are unlikely to be emboldened by talk of potential civil war in one of Southeast Asia’s biggest economies.

The latest economic metrics aren’t encouraging: Thai stocks posted their nastiest drop since January after Yingluck was removed from power on Thursdayand the Thai SET index was down 1.7 percent to the lowest close in nearly six weeks. The Bank of Thailand projects slower economic growth for 2014 than in the past, in no small part influenced by the ongoing turmoil and a resulting dip in domestic demand.

Thailand is resource rich, beautiful, and has a young population, but all these assets may look far less attractive if accompanied by a dollop of profound political uncertainty. Smart policy-watchers should be keeping a careful eye on Thailand as the political drama stretches into the summer months.

Image credit: Johan Fatenberg via Flickr