The millions of tourists who flock to Thailand have seen it at its best over the past two years. Absent has been the political instability that at its most recent peak in 2009 caused the abandonment of an East Asia summit at the beach resort of Pattaya. But the serenity of the Land of Smiles has disappeared over the past couple of months. Street clashes in Bangkok between demonstrators and the police shortly after Christmas left two people dead and more than 140 injured. Once again, the immediate future of Southeast Asia's second-largest economy has become uncertain.
The catalyst for the latest outbreak of unrest was an ill-advised attempt by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's ruling Pheu Thai Party to push through Parliament an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother, Thaksin, to return to the country as a free man. He has lived in self-imposed exile since being accused of corruption during his six years in power. Yingluck's opponents believe she is acting as a proxy for her brother to continue to rule Thailand from abroad and want an end to what they call the "Thaksin regime".
That implies the country is being ruled despotically. Such is not the case. Yingluck Shinawatra heads a democratically elected government with a strong parliamentary mandate. Doubtless, she would also win by a handy margin a general election that she has called for February 2 as a means of defusing the current crisis.
Her opponents, headed by representatives of the ironically named Democratic Party, want, instead, an unelected people's council to rule Thailand.
They know that in any election they will always be outpointed because the rural poor, the biggest voting bloc, will support Pheu Thai overwhelmingly. These people have benefited from Shinawatra policies, including cheap loans and improved healthcare and education. Pheu Thai's opponents come from the traditional elite and the metropolitan middle class.
In essence, Thailand is continuing to experience a serious case of democratic growing pains. For years, the Shinawatras' opponents have been fighting a skilful rearguard action against the idea of universal suffrage. Their occasional successes have enabled them to prolong the process, but only at the expense of damage to Thailand's heavily tourism-oriented economy. Clearly, they hope their latest round of demonstrations will encourage another intervention by the army. The most recent of 11 military coups toppled Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.
The army is remaining non-committal. Its chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has said the intervention door was "neither open nor closed". It is reassuring, however, that he seems to be taking a more neutral stance and is in no apparent rush to overthrow a democratic government. In part, that is due to the care Yingluck Shinawatra has taken not to offend the army and her refusal to order a crackdown against the demonstrators. But that, in turn, may force the protesters to increase the violence in their quest to trigger military intervention.
The demonstrators' chances of forcing change will be enhanced if the February 2 election is delayed. The country's election commission has urged the Government to consider a postponement, citing the security situation. That is a panicky response, as the protests have suspended registration of candidates in only four of the country's 77 constituencies. All are in the south, a reflection of the protest movement's limited national appeal. That same weakness has led the Democratic Party to announce it will boycott the poll.
In the interests of democracy and of confirming Yingluck Shinawatra's strong mandate, that election should be held. At some point, her opponents will have to accept the democratic will.