Thailand stumbles again

The removal from office of Thai caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is the latest episode of a sorry political saga that has seen violent protests and the country edging towards recession. Ruling unanimously that she had acted illegally in transferring a top security official, the Constitutional Court also stripped of their status nine Cabinet ministers who had endorsed her decision.

That sanction was a limited one because it left other Cabinet members unscathed, allowing a deputy prime minister to replace her and dilute some of the anger among her supporters which would have resulted from the entire Cabinet being sacked. The supporters are confident that planned elections in July would return the ruling party to power. Encouraged by the court ruling, however, anti-government protesters are determined to drive the party from office and erase the influence of the self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, long accused of ruling in absentia through his sister. Ms Yingluck's detractors will be emboldened by the anti-graft agency's ruling against her in a rice-buying scheme that could lead to her impeachment.

Ms Yingluck's removal is but a scene in a play whose denouement is unknown. Thailand's political impasse dramatises the limitations of democracy as a political stage when the actors cannot agree on their roles. Thaksin demonstrated convincingly the hold of his charismatic populism on the agrarian poor and the urban working class. Arrayed against the numerical superiority of these groups is the institutional power of the entrenched Bangkok elite, old money, the royalist establishment, and the urban middle class. These groups would have sought a compromise in a working democracy. But that has proved impossible in the embittered political climate of Thailand, leading to the paralysis evident today. The more than six months of unrest that preceded the court ruling are a part of the eight-year struggle for the political soul of the country, a contestation which does not appear to have a definitive conclusion, let alone an imminent one.

In the circumstances, the best that Thailand's well-wishers could ask for is that politicians do not use the streets to wage their battles. The daily lives of ordinary Thais have been disrupted by violence that has given their country's image a severe beating. The economy, already a poor cousin of politics, is in danger of being sidelined even further as rival factions refuse to budge from a winner-takes-all mentality.

Thais, known for the gentleness of their culture, do not deserve to see their place in the Asian scheme of things frittered away by the ambitions of their contentious political class.