Proposals to postpone Thailand's controversial general election for at least one month threaten to transform the current confrontation between government and opposition into a permanent state of crisis with potentially damaging region-wide ramifications.
Monday's recommendation by Thailand's election commission to delay the poll, due on 2 February, follows intensified violence at the weekend.One person was killed and 12 were injured when anti-government protesters blockaded advance polling stations, bringing the total death toll to 10 since the unrest began in November.
Further complicating an already dangerously confused situation, the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her Pheu Thai party are insisting the election must go ahead on time. They fear an escalation of violence, causing further collateral damage to the economy, foreign investment and tourism, plus the ever present possibility of military intervention.
"We have to press ahead … a postponement would be futile and would only give independent organisations more time to target the government," said the interior minister, Jarupong Ruangsuwan.
But even if she gets her way, Yingluck's dilemma is plain. The main opposition Democrat party and the protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, have pledged to boycott the poll, ensuring that the inevitable Pheu Thai victory will be rendered virtually meaningless.
A bigger casualty could be democracy itself, a delicate flower in coup-prone Thailand as it is in other countries in south-east Asia. Suggesting in effect that the democratic system has failed, the opposition wants an unelected "people's council" to oversee a national reform programme. They claim this is required to end the corruption and abuse of power represented by Yingluck and her exiled brother, the Pheu Thai founder and former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Recent unrest in three Asian countries – Bangladesh, Cambodia and Thailand – had several factors in common, the New York Times commented this month.
"While the immediate causes for the turmoil are different in each country, they share several shortcomings. The lack of sufficient democratic checks and balances in all three has undermined faith in elections and helped to create the conditions for civil unrest. Autocratic and corrupt political leaders have used government agencies, in some cases over decades, to serve themselves and their cronies."
Thailand's looming royal succession may only add to the instability. The ailing King Bhumibol has been on the throne since 1946, making him the world's longest-reigning monarch, and is revered by most Thais. The crown prince, Vajiralongkorn, is much less popular and lacks the authority of his father. A discredited monarchy under new management may only accelerate Thailand's slow-burn disintegration as a functioning, unified state.
Like its neighbours, Thailand has benefited in recent decades from rapid development but remains economically vulnerable to prolonged political unrest, said the commentator William Pesek. "The circus-like dysfunction in Bangkok is unique. The weaknesses being exposed there are not. From Thailand to Indonesia to Malaysia – even as far as India – Asian nations are displaying an extremely worrying set of shared vulnerabilities.
"Across the region, debt-fuelled growth is wrecking household balance sheets. Large subsidies are draining government coffers. Asset bubbles in real estate and equities continue to swell. The gap between rich and poor is widening … this combination of factors could be pushing the region toward another crash, perhaps in the very near future."
The crisis in Thailand has wider negative implications for the US, the country's principal ally, but Washington has little choice but to watch from the sidelines, said the analyst Robert Kaplan.
"Thailand's internal dissensions mask a regional risk. America's oldest Asian ally faces political stalemate at the very moment Washington seeks to shore up its influence in the face of China's rise. The US wants to see a stable south-east Asia not only for economic growth, but also to create a unified bloc in the long run that can hinder China.
"Thailand's clash between traditionalism and new money may echo throughout the region. To the west, Burma has only recently begun an 'opening up' process … to the south, Malaysia's one-party state is combating a threatening opposition movement by reviving ethnic Malay nationalism. To the east, Cambodia faces a growing trend of opposition unrest, and the Vietnamese Communist party is wrestling with the Chinese conundrum of how to harness capitalism without losing power.
"Thailand proves that south-east Asia is a region to watch. Decades of prosperity have created the conditions for political transformation – for better and for worse."