Leading article: King and country

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The Independent Online

The anti-government protests which began a week ago in Bangkok are in danger of sparking a full-blown constitutional crisis in Thailand. The Thai prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, announced a state of emergency yesterday. But that has not put an end to the crisis. The military has vowed that it will not use force to suppress the protesters, and insists that only a political deal will end the deadlock. Yet neither side seems willing to compromise. And the round of nationwide anti-government strikes due to begin today will only increase the atmosphere of confrontation.

So which side has justice on its side? The protesters of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) complain that the present government is attempting to subvert the constitution, and that Mr Samak is merely the puppet of the exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The government, for its part, maintains that the PAD is an unrepresentative mob.

Mr Thaksin's record in power was certainly questionable, and there is little doubt that he continues to exert considerable influence over the present administration. The ruling People Power Party is a resurrected version of Mr Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai movement. There are also serious doubts about the integrity of December's election result. The Thai election commission yesterday recommended that the People Power Party be disbanded, citing evidence that it bought votes in last year's poll.

But let us be clear. The PAD leadership is no collection of spotless democrats either. They are pressing for an appointed, rather than directly elected, parliament on the grounds that rural voters are too poorly educated to be allowed to vote. They have also proposed enshrining the right of the military to intervene in politics when necessary. And the PAD's legitimacy is as questionable as the PPP's. It has support in Bangkok, but enjoys no real backing in the countryside. There are also signs that it has overplayed its hand in these demonstrations, failing to take Thai public opinion with it.

The bottom line is that if these protests succeed in overthrowing the government, they will set a terrible precedent and sow the seeds of future instability in Thailand. The only way forward would seem to be for the King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, to intervene and make it clear that he supports the elected government, but also the country's constitution.

The king is now 80 years old and loath to intervene in politics. But he is the only public figure who still enjoys the support of Thais of all political affiliations. It was King Bhumibol's intervention that brought calm and delivered a new constitution after the military coup that deposed Mr Thaksin two years ago. A dose of the same royal medicine is needed again. It looks as if the Thai monarchy might, once again, have to step in to save Thai democracy.