Censure debate is lacking drama

It has been perhaps the most low-key lead-up for a censure debate in Thai political history, with noticeably scant media attention of the event in parliament.

Outspoken members of the opposition-core Democrat Party said the atmosphere was far from normal and the mainstream media have hardly reported anything about the censure debate, which runs from tomorrow until Tuesday.

Last week, the media was busy with covering the visits to Thailand of the leaders of the United States and China. The major world leaders were viewed as staging diplomatic manoeuvring in Thailand and the region to further their interests and balance out each other's influence in Southeast Asia.

With media attention diverted, the censure debate, to be led by the main opposition Democrat Party, has made scant news. Some people doubt the party has any information or substantial evidence with which to grill the prime minister and targeted ministers.

About 160 Democrat MPs do not know what their leader Abhisit Vejjajiva and opposition chief whip Jurin Laksanavisit will deliver in the debate. Only 12 Democrats will deliver the punches on the floor during the debate, but they have shared the information only among themselves and with the two key figures.

The opposition is limiting the number of speaking members in the debate to contain protests from government MPs who are expected to interrupt speeches to protect Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra who, as some opposition members have remarked, does not seem too keen about attending parliamentary sessions.

A Democrat MP said much of the debate content has been kept a secret as key Democrat debaters, including Mr Abhisit, Niphit Intharasombat and Juti Krairiksh as well as opposition whip chief Jurin Laksanavisit, have been busy devising plans behind closed doors.

The unusually quiet pre-censure debate period could well be the calm before the storm, the MP said.

The information to be revealed in the debate was certain to take the government aback, the MP said. It would touch on the government's alleged failures, most notably on the alleged mismanagement of the rice pledging scheme and flood prevention projects.

The censure debate has been overshadowed also by the hype surrounding the second anti-government Pitak Siam rally, which kicks off this morning at the Royal Plaza.

Gen Boonlert Kaewprasit, who leads the group, said he expected demonstrators to pack the Royal Plaza and its vicinity including Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue and roads adjacent to Government House.

Pitak Siam, the ruling Pheu Thai Party and the pro-government red shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship are competing for space in the media to air their side of stories.

Both pro- and anti-government parties predict the number of Pitak Siam rally attendees will reach around 100,000 at the height of the gathering.

The government side claims the protest leaders are bent on inciting civil unrest and planning to shift the blame to red-shirt activists.

Opponents insist they are upset with economic woes and infectious corruption in state policies.

Pitak Siam said its rally would be peaceful and free of weapons, dismissing claims by government supporters the gathering could turn violent.

Testing times loom for nation

After being underestimated over its previous gathering last month, the Pitak Siam group says it has every reason to be confident of an unexpectedly strong turnout at its second rally in Bangkok today.

Despite a projection by the Special Branch Police that only a few thousand people would join Pitak Siam's first rally at the Royal Turf Club on Oct 28, the event pulled in close to 20,000 people, according to the organisers.

The government has apparently learned its lesson and is paying serious attention to the group led by Boonlert Kaewprasit, a retired general.

The government is playing its cards carefully, opting instead to blow up the scale of the rally and claim political elements are out to topple it, according to political observers.

Rumour after rumour has been spread to discredit Pitak Siam. It has been alleged that 6 billion baht has been quietly raised by certain people to engineer the government's ouster and that part of the money is being spent to promote street protests.

Other rumours are that rally goers are aiming for a protracted demonstration; a third party is plotting a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the demonstrators to stir up unrest; and a military coup is on the cards to restore order in the country.

It is even being said that government supporters are preparing a counter-attack in case the anti-government demonstration goes too far. Those familiar with the matter say it sounds as though the country is entering a war.

The government camp's reaction has prompted Pitak Siam to raise its guard even higher. The group is preparing to telecast its rally via several satellite TV channels and the social media.

The core red-shirt leaders, meanwhile, have come out to say the red-shirts in each province are ready to move to clash with the anti-government protesters in the name of preserving democracy.

With both sides trying to call each other's bluff and possibly provoke a new wave of confrontation, political tensions are flaring once again, with politics being reduced to a game where the players are focused only on taking power or cementing their grip on authority.

As the spectre of political unrest looms large, certain groups of people in power and political lobbyists realise it is time to put their thinking caps back on and try to find a way out of this simmering political conflict.

The anti-government rally and the censure debate against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and three cabinet ministers are seen as only the first step that could lead to a more complicated situation.

The groups know that if they do nothing to prevent a clash between opponents and supporters of the government, a military revolt or even a coup will be imminent.

One common solution put forth is to dissolve the House and call a new general election, a race that will test the popularity of Pheu Thai and the Democrat-led camp.

The importance of being Chuan

For the Democrat Party's chief adviser Chuan Leekpai, it's once a leader, always a leader.

The image of Mr Chuan, a two-time prime minister, is one of integrity and humility, say his admirers in the party.

There has even been an attempt to bring back Mr Chuan to lead the Democrat Party once again as some members consider the party as performing under current leader Abhisit Vejjajiva may be too weak to counter the ruling Pheu Thai Party.

Mr Abhisit has yet to show outstanding leadership at the party's helm. If he is allowed to continue steering the party, it will be difficult to restore it to its once former glory, a source said.

Mr Chuan's role in the party has even been quietly elevated to that of a key coordinator, along with others with political clout, in the midst of a situation in which the capability of the new generation of leaders is being questioned. The Democrats are seen as perpetually stuck in opposition mode and the leader is taking a pounding.

For the moment, Mr Chuan is still working for the party as actively as ever and gives advice to members as if he was still leading the party.

Although Mr Abhisit and the new generation are seen as running the party, many members still respect and listen to Mr Chuan. They include Mr Abhisit as well.

Mr Chuan still takes part in party affairs. He has an office in the party's headquarters. He leads various training and political courses at the Democrat's political school, as well as accepting invitations to speak at an array of institutes.

Although Mr Chuan is no longer in the mainstream media eye, he still beavers away behind the scenes at various tasks, including encouraging party members to work harder in their constituencies and asking them to take a bigger role in political activities. The source said the Democrats are now placing too much emphasis on a war of words and so it is Mr Chuan who is encouraging party MPs to look into the importance of local administration elections, including tambon and provincial administration organisations and even municipal politics.

He regards local administration as indisputably important for the political base of the party.

Mr Chuan realises that political rivals have managed to seize more and more political bases from the Democrats in local administration.

So it is necessary for him to come out and alert his party members to visit their popular bases more frequently.

As Mr Chuan has such extensive experience in politics, he also senses that political change may come again in the near future. That is why he tries hard to let party members know that stiff political competition requires them to meet voters on a regular basis.

The source said it is not unusual for political views between the new generation and veteran politicians to differ, but the Democrats at least still have Mr Chuan, a beacon of respect.

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